Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner have exhibited imagination and infallible instincts as performers and writers for the past 40 years, netting a succession of Tonys, Emmys and Oscar nominations. These comedic instincts are being put to good use as producers and sponsors of talent, and the often riotous results of their artistic endorsement are on display at the Evidence Room. Tomlin has embodied many quirky characters — Ernestine, Edith Ann, Judith Beasley and Trudy the Bag Lady — so it’s natural she would be drawn to Hildy Hildy, a winningly wild Haiku poet played to the hilt by Patricia Scanlon.
Scanlon’s Hildy Hildy was initially one of the main creations in “The Strip,” the Evidence Room’s popular latenight serial program presented in 2003. From the minute Scanlon walks onstage in long black stockings, eyes bulging, self-help tape in hand (“You Can Be Happy” narrated by Ali McGraw), it’s clear her Hildy Hildy has the potential to score strongly on TV and film. Scanlon’s husky voice carries echoes of Hermione Gingold, and her weirdly individual way of pouncing on words and drawing them out marks her as a unique stylist.
Author Hugh Palmer also provides Hildy Hildy with deliciously offbeat relatives — a resentful mother, Tallulah (Joanna Cassidy), and competitive sister Pinky (Kate Flannery), who operate a small-town pet mortuary.
“Three Feet Under” — a loose takeoff on the death-embracing HBO drama — drags unwilling Hildy back to her depressing roots, a situation she copes with by taking along such “neurotica” as a copy of “The Bell Jar.” She also brings reluctant live-in boyfriend Bob (Palmer), a contrastingly straight, middle-of-the-road man in T-shirt and jeans who shudders at the thought of dead animals.
Palmer is perfect as Bob, precisely because he keeps everything low-key. Bob tries, with amusing restraint, to make sense of the bizarre personalities he meets at the mortuary, including frantic mourner Bethany (Colleen Kane), whose beloved cats keep dying. It’s no wonder Bob welcomes the chance to sample a mysterious blue alcoholic beverage devised by Dale (Michael Louden), Pinky’s husband. Louden’s character, a pet undertaker who swaggers like a rock star, is unique enough to carry his own show: Thesp offers masterfully macabre line readings in bringing his lewdly self-satisfied and kinky character to life.
Joanna Cassidy, a regular on “Six Feet Under” as Rachel Griffiths’ toxic, attacking mother, has fun playing a parent who regrets having children because motherhood destroyed her chances for a writing career. Her Tallulah is a charismatic blend of glamour, poise and viperous hatred. When daughter Pinky, in a flashback, is rejected as a cheerleader, Cassidy wrings every last ounce of hilarious hostility from the comment, “Same old, same old.”
Pinky confesses the bitterness she feels about not becoming a lounge singer, and her anger at Hildy Hildy is portrayed with entertaining, extravagant theatricality.
But after a while, their family feuding grows repetitive, and promising plot possibilities suggested by a pet mortuary setting aren’t sufficiently explored.
Poor, befuddled Bob — an ingratiating symbol of sanity amid chaos — deserves more emphasis, letting us see why such a laid-back guy would be drawn to hysterical Hildy Hildy. Palmer has come up with a wealth of ideas, and some of the best bits would benefit from further development.
Even in this form, however, the originality of each character furnishes nonstop laughter. Set design by Jason Adams, Alicia Hoge and Adam Kurtzman and costumes by Ann Closs-Farley are appropriately absurd. That absurdity hits its peak in a campy concluding rendition of “The Morning After” from “The Poseidon Adventure,” spotlighting Colleen Kane’s terrific takeoff of a swimming Shelley Winters.