You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

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.

More Scene

  • Karl Lagerfeld'Lagerfeld Confidential' Photocall at the

    Karl Lagerfeld Remembered at Costume Designers Guild Awards

    The death of fashion and costume designer Karl Lagerfeld cast somewhat of a shadow over the usually jubilant Costume Designers Guild Awards — the only award show where clothes literally steal the spotlight away from actors — which was held at the Beverly Hilton on Tuesday night. Here it was obvious that Lagerfeld’s impact on [...]

  • Kate Bosworth'Nona' film premiere, New York,

    Kate Bosworth Helps Launch Campaign for Female Filmmakers

    In her 20-year career in Hollywood, Kate Bosworth has starred in blockbusters like “Superman Returns” as well as indie darlings like 2014’s “Still Alice.” But the actress has always had a desire to get more involved from the ground up. Now, she is partnering with Women In Film and Chloe Wine Collection to launch the [...]

  • Amandla Stenberg and Sofia CarsonVanity Fair

    Oscar Week Kicks Off With Vanity Fair's New Hollywood Party

    The night was definitely still young Tuesday at Vanity Fair’s New Hollywood party in Los Angeles. The magazine kicked off Oscar week with a party — the first of its three-event Campaign Hollywood series — at Ysabel in West Hollywood to celebrate new and emerging talent. Co-hosted by Yalitza Aparicio, Henry Golding and Amandla Stenberg [...]

  • Oscars Ultimate Party Guide

    Oscar's Ultimate Party Guide 2019

    Welcome to Oscar week. It’s the time of year when Hollywood’s film industry celebrates all things movies. But it’s certainly not just the big show everyone is looking forward to. With voting closed, it’s all about the parties now. Who’s doing what and where and when are they doing it are the questions everyone is [...]

  • Yalitza AparicioTeen Vogue Young Hollywood Party,

    'Roma' Star Yalitza Aparicio, 'Central Park Five's' Jharrel Jerome Sound Off on Trump

    Yalitza Aparicio recently reunited with Alfonso Cuarón, who directed her in “Roma,” for a W magazine photo project that featured her standing at various barriers built at the border between Mexico and the United States. The message? “You can make a name for yourself despite the differences,” Aparicio told Variety on Friday at Teen Vogue’s Young [...]

  • Karl LagerfeldChanel Paris-Londres 2007/8 Show, London,

    Legendary Fashion Designer Karl Lagerfeld Dies at 85

    Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion icon – and iconoclast – who outfitted and photographed such stars as Nicole Kidman and Lady Gaga, has died. He was 85. Lagerfeld died in Paris, fashion house Chanel said. Although his health had been failing, he kept working up to his death, issuing instructions regarding Fendi’s fall ready-to-wear collection, which [...]

  • Eric Wareheim, 'The Simpsons' E.P. Matt

    Beefsteak Gathers Comedy Bigwigs for Meat and Mayhem

    The masterminds behind Beefsteak, a debauched tribute to the meaty arts that raises thousands for the Los Angeles Food Bank, switch things up each year so that guests are never bored. Organized by comedy players including Eric Wareheim, “The Simpsons” executive producer Matt Selman, and ABC Studios VP of comedy Cort Cass with Redbird chef Neal [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content