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Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress

Can she talk! Two parts candid conversation to one part groaner farce, veteran comedienne Joan Rivers, nee Joan Molinsky from Larchmont, N.Y., serves up a self-portrait that's a compendium of eye-opening views, insights and reminiscence.

With:
Herself - Joan Rivers Evan - Tara Joyce Svetlana - Emily Kosloski Kenny - Adam Kulbersh

Can she talk! Two parts candid conversation to one part groaner farce, veteran comedienne Joan Rivers, nee Joan Molinsky from Larchmont, N.Y., serves up a self-portrait that’s a compendium of eye-opening views, insights and reminiscence. The vehicle, making its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, may be rickety, but the lady is a smash.

Show melds let’s-dish self-revelation inspired by “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” with a semi-fictional wraparound plot, developed with co-authors Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell, in which chaos reigns prior to an awards show red carpet appearance. Wardrobe is a disaster, and execs offer the cold shoulder with minimal assistance from nelly novice Kenny (Adam Kulbersh) and daffy Russian emigre hairdresser Svetlana (Emily Kosloski).

Oh, and daughter Melissa has been assigned the “A” dressing room. Youth will be served in this business, as 74-year-old Joan emphasizes in her periodic asides to break the fourth wall and level with us.

Backstage plot, although poignantly evoking her unceremonious 2007 dumping by the TV Guide Channel, does Rivers no favors in highlighting her imperiousness, complete with self-conscious profanity and the gratuitous dismissal of Svetlana as “Boris Yeltsin” and “Chicken Kiev.” Moreover, helmer Bart DeLorenzo lets events become broader and sillier than they have any need to be, especially in contrast to his sensitive handling of the recollections repeatedly bursting out of the framing device.

She actively invites us to get her looks out of the way quickly. The famously worked-over tight skin, with two black holes for eyes under Rand Ryan’s lights, at first disconcertingly suggests an impersonator in a Joan Rivers mask. She requires voice and full body movement to convey what she used to say with one raised eyebrow, back when such things could be raised.

Yet such concerns become a non-issue within minutes, as the star assumes total command of the proceedings, her impeccable delivery unaffected by time. A disquisition on sex after 60 (“I can get a mammogram and a pedicure at the same time”) is vintage Rivers; her signature filler during laughter — “It was just … Oh! Oh!” — now as comfortably welcome as Jack Benny’s “Well!”

Discussion of her treatment at the hands of misogynistic, sabotaging lenser Lucien Ballard, on Joan’s first and only helming effort “Rabbit Test,” is uncompromising, but devoid of meanness. The hilarity of her tale never obscures the serious moral about women’s obstacles in Hollywood.

Memories of celebs from Johnny Carson — both his kindness to a newcomer and later freeze-out to a competitor — to Mae West are similarly tinged with maturity and perspective, ditto her heartbreaking depiction of husband Edgar’s suicide and Melissa’s subsequent rebellion (at 16 she was named as executor, essentially the mistress of her mother’s fate).

The vulnerability and warmth infusing these chat scenes are sure to come as a revelation to those who know Rivers only as the implacable scold of Elizabeth Taylor and Heidi Abramowitz. (Note: La Liz gets off easy in this production, while the trampy Heidi hasn’t worn especially well over time.)

Taking the ungainly subtitle “a work in progress” at its word, Job One would seem to be correcting the imbalance of the increasingly trivial and decreasingly amusing awards-night shenanigans. Everyone talks about crummy Dressing Room B, but designer Tom Buderwitz does not provide genuinely cramped quarters with potential for physical comedy. The supporting players offer caricatures in place of specific, credible showbiz types.

Tara Joyce in particular could easily sharpen her take on smarmy web execs. There’s more bite in Rivers’ description of her firing by Fox’s Barry Diller and Jamie Kellner — yes, the star names names — than in Joyce’s cartoonish turn.

But in the end, anything bearing the “Joan Rivers” brand needs to yield laughs first and foremost, so how funny is this evening? Can we talk? Program estimates length as 1 hour 40 minutes, “more if you laugh, less if you don’t.” Opening night clocked in at just under two hours, as aud embraced the star in one big collective hug. You bet it’s funny, and in its best moments truthful as well.

Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress

Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles; 522 seats, $79 top

Production: A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in one act by Joan Rivers and Douglas Bernstein & Denis Markell. Directed by Bart DeLorenzo.

Crew: Sets, Tom Buderwitz; costumes, Christina Haatainen Jones; lighting, Rand Ryan; projections, Austin Switser; sound, John Ballinger; production stage manager, Elizabeth A. Brohm. Opened, reviewed Feb. 13, 2008; runs through March 30. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast: Herself - Joan Rivers Evan - Tara Joyce Svetlana - Emily Kosloski Kenny - Adam KulbershWith: Dorie Barton, Leo Marks, Melissa Rivers.

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