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Mario Cantone: Laugh Whore

Leading the charge for this season's invasion of one-person shows -- upcoming are Whoopi Goldberg, Dame Edna, Billy Crystal and Eve Ensler -- Mario Cantone proves himself a ferocious comic dynamo with an infectiously manic command of the stage in "Laugh Whore."

With:
Starring: Mario Cantone

Leading the charge for this season’s invasion of one-person shows — upcoming are Whoopi Goldberg, Dame Edna, Billy Crystal and Eve Ensler — Mario Cantone proves himself a ferocious comic dynamo with an infectiously manic command of the stage in “Laugh Whore.” Title indicates an unapologetic performer with no illusions of greater glory. What’s missing is some kind of narrative shape to elevate the hilarious sprawl of material from superior standup into the kind of full-blooded theatrical experience that can justify Broadway prices and a running time of more than two hours.

Profane and pugnacious, Cantone is wickedly entertaining, supplying more laughs per minute in his solo show than anything else on a New York stage right now. The comic’s colorful Italian-American family would seem to be fertile clay from which to mold an autobiographical skeleton.

But despite opening with a shticky version of the ultimate diva’s camp confessional, “This Is My Life,” self-revelation takes a back seat to savage observation of celebrities, family members and popular culture, with no real unifying thread beyond that of an opinionated, irreverent guy running off at the mouth.

This may be reward enough for Cantone’s large gay following and for fans of his shrill wedding planner on “Sex and the City.” But the star’s tireless energy, gifted mimicry and equal facility with verbal and physical comedy — not to mention Joe Mantello’s taut, impeccably polished direction — hint that this freewheeling rant with a handful of songs could have become not just a good-time whore but a whole rollicking whorehouse.

Much of the first act is devoted to Cantone’s one-man celebrity massacre, revealing his dazzling talent for barbed impersonation. His rendition of a sputtering Shelley Winters on “Inside the Actors Studio” is priceless (“I fucked all my leading men. Kirk Douglas, Tony Franciosa, Lauren Bacall, I fucked them all”), as is his late-in-life Julia Child, with a neck emerging directly from her breasts.

Cantone’s skewering of his foibles also is channeled through celebs. Acknowledging he’s too much of a control freak to take cabs, he gives us Mario as Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford as a taxi driver’s nightmare. Cher takes a sustained beating (“Cher has an Oscar. And that‘s the punchline.”), prompting a delirious rendition of the diva and Tina Turner dueting on “Proud Mary.”

Cantone’s skill at aping body language is on par with his vocal abilities. His scissor-legged Turner is matched by Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret doing “Viva Las Vegas,” and Judy Garland in an extended second-act revisitation of her CBS series, including song “My Name Is Gumm,” whose chorus goes, “He’s half a homo, and I love him.”

Even the most widely lampooned, unintentionally self-parodying celebrities are somehow fresh putty in Cantone’s hands. “Idiot savant” Michael Jackson feeds an especially rich diatribe (“Now he has a clitoris for a nose”), while Carol Channing’s appearance at this year’s Tony Awards with LL Cool J sparks a very funny imagined conversation between the two across a vast cultural divide.

One of the show’s best original songs, penned by Jerry Dixon, Cantone and Harold Lubin, is a tragic survivor anthem performed as Liza Minnelli called “I Ain’t Finished Yet” (“I’m strong as a fungus, my future’s humongous”), replete with screwy asides to the band leader.

Act two shifts to focus more on Cantone’s family, a clan that includes his four burly uncles with chunka-lunka pinky rings, a scary mother prone to robbing the house or burning it down for insurance, a half-brother no one dared to ask about and a duck-mouthed cousin who was the authority on everything. By far the most brilliant comic creation of the show is the one constructed around Cantone’s hard-drinking, chain-smoking, gravel-voiced, trash-talking sister Camille.

Cantone’s account of his trip to Italy with Camille and his other overanxious sister is a comic high point, as are Camille’s views on Bill Clinton: “So he liked the BJs. He had a high-pressure job. I want my president to be relaxed. You can be sure no one’s relaxing George Dubya.”

Closest Cantone comes to personal reflection is in looking at all the women in his family who have died young from cancer, though he declines to linger long over anything not milked for caustic comedy.

While his sexuality is a fundamental part of Cantone’s act, there’s no real insight provided into growing up a gay, theatrical kid in a working-class Italian family of masculine men and overbearing women, no mention of coming out or of relationships, any of which might have added the missing personal dimension.

The comic does successfully mine his early career for material — his stint teaching at a tough Manhattan public high school for the deaf, his five years hosting New York kids TV show “Steampipe Alley,” his engagement as Stephano in “The Tempest” with Patrick Stewart (“These are 400-year-old jokes. You make them funny!”) and, most amusingly, his participation as Timon in the pre-Broadway workshop production of “The Lion King” and scathing summation of the challenges of operating a puppet.

Broadway also comes under his comic radar in a merciless look back at “Cats,” while Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” prompts a devastatingly funny barrage of impersonations of women who didn’t live to perform in that show, starting with a post-stroke Bette Davis. One of the more improvisational stretches of the show, this track spurs Cantone to solicit suggestions from the audience, all of which he fearlessly tackles, from Ethel Merman to Oprah Winfrey.

Cantone’s aggressive brand of showbiz pizzazz and sassiness is flawlessly echoed in Robert Brill’s simple yet flashy set, comprising a wall of lights, multiple poles and — for a short time in act two — a staircase and couch. The staging wittily epitomizes cheesy variety shows and Broadway glitz, a dual mission furthered by the scorching colors of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting.

Mario Cantone: Laugh Whore

Cort Theater; 1,062 seats; $81.25 top

Production: A Showtime Networks presentation in association with Jonathan Burkhart of a comedy revue with songs in two acts by Mario Cantone, original music by Jerry Dixon, lyrics by Cantone, Dixon and Harold Lubin, additional music by Cantone and Lubin. Directed by Joe Mantello.

Crew: Music director and orchestrator, Tom Kitt. Arrangements, Dixon, Kitt. Musical staging, Lisa Leguillou. Sets, Robert Brill; lighting, Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Tony Meola; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes. Reviewed Oct. 20, 2004. Opened Oct. 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Starring: Mario Cantone

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