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Treading Too Lightly

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British humor does not always translate when it reaches our shores. Some recent examples of English wit have met with different degrees of reception and appreciation. On Broadway at the intimate Helen Hayes, By Jeeves has been treated with kid gloves by some critics in the new, post-Sept. 11 world. This is a world in which major reviewers are giving productions of questionable merit a free pass (Mamma Mia!, the kitschy ABBA-inspired musical at the Winter Garden, is a prime example), perhaps to bolster the precarious Broadway box office. Jeeves got a mixed notice in the Times and fairly favorable ones from other prominent scribes. The word of mouth, however, has been predominantly negative. At the performance attended, there was very little audible laughter and quite a few defections at intermission.

By Jeeves is simple-minded when it wants to be simple. That's how a character describes one of the numerous I Love Lucy-esque plot twists, and it's stunningly apt. Jeeves is the dry-as-toast, ever-resourceful butler whose main occupation is saving the bacon of his employer, upper-crust twit supreme Bertie Wooster, from a plethora of scrapes. This musical resorts to sitcom antics based on mistaken identity, pratfalls, and people hiding in trunks of cars and posing as hat racks.

Librettist/lyricist/director Alan Ayckbourn has written dozens of plays that are grounded in character and situation rather than this kind of flimsy setup. His lyrics are as thin as his book, most of them consisting of laundry lists. Andrew Lloyd Webber's music is repetitive and dull. The actors do their level best to make the show work, but, with no reality to ground them, their flights of fanciful farce come crashing to Earth.

In direct opposition to By Jeeves, the British revival of Michael Frayn's Noises Off (Brooks Atkinson Theatre) soars into the stratosphere of silliness and never lands. The basic premise is just as ridiculous as that of Jeeves, but Frayn and director Jeremy Sams have given everyone onstage a plausible reason for their insane behavior. The Noises Off crew play actors in a third-rate farce in which everything goes terribly wrong. Frayn spends the first act laying the groundwork: the plot of the onstage show, Nothing On; the relationships among the characters; the importance of getting the production to succeed (the leading lady has her life savings riding on it). The onstage show must work; thus the cast is playing actions rather than mugging for obvious guffaws.

To depart from the British for a moment, Neil Simon's 45 Seconds From Broadway (at the Richard Rodgers) is not a farce, but it violates the cardinal rule of comedy: Everyone must have a reason for being onstage. Nobody in this lightweight sliver of a play has a strong reason for being anywhere, other than to get a hot meal. The play is set in the legendary theatre district eatery the Edison Café, affectionately nicknamed the Polish Tea Room. I hesitate to even call it a play; it's more like an idea for a play barely fleshed out beyond a rough preliminary sketch. To use a food metaphor, the dinner is underdone.

Back to the British: Are You Dave Gorman? at the Off-Broadway Westbeth Theatre Center is a solo show about the title comedian's real-life worldwide search for men with the same name. His journey takes him across Great Britain to America. It's a giddy voyage of obsession, and Gorman is a merry tour guide as we meet Jewish, gay, Scottish, Irish, and even fictional Dave Gormans. This is humor that travels well.

Broadway Broads

Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 The Women is definitely a period piece. This all-female social comedy is populated with backstabbing Park Avenue bitches and gold-digging floozies, each desperate to stay ahead of her girlfriends on the ladder of social advancement, whatever rung they happen to be occupying. Despite its political incorrectness, the new Roundabout revival at the American Airlines Theatre is a deliciously nasty and fun frolic.

Director Scott Elliott previously attempted putting a revisionist spin on Noël Coward's Present Laughter and came a cropper. Here he recognizes the datedness of the material and revels in it. Unlike his staging of the Coward play, his version of this show is an affectionate, campy valentine to a bygone era. He sees the women of The Women as bad little girls who love to play dress-up and tattletale. In line with this vision, set designer Derek McLane creates a playpen version of Manhattan with dollhouse skyscrapers opening up into lavish living rooms, fitting rooms, boudoirs, kitchens, and beauty parlors. Likewise fashion guru Isaac Mizrahi throws open closets full of outlandish gowns, hats, and accessories.

The cast gets into the spirit, gleefully whipping up a witches' brew that is half champagne and half hemlock. Cynthia Nixon keeps Mary from being too much of a Madonna (the virgin, not the pop singer) by adding a soupçon of hard-won cynicism to her sweet demeanor. Kristen Johnston, the tallest actress in the world, is a ravenous huntress of rumors as the bitterest of Mary's friends. Jennifer Coolidge gets considerable comedic mileage from the narcissism of the perpetually pregnant Edith. Rue McClanahan is delightfully dizzy as a much-married countess. Jennifer Tilly plays another interesting variation on the dumb-as-a-fox bimbo she rendered in Bullets Over Broadway. Mary Louise Wilson is dryly sage as Mary's mother. And there are sparkling cameos from Mary Bond Davis, Julie Halston, Adina Porter, and Jennifer Butt.

While The Women features 24 females onstage, one seasoned old broad, Elaine Stritch, holds the Newman at the Public Theater alone in her autobiographical vehicle At Liberty. In this combination cabaret act and confessional, Stritch runs through her extraordinary career; failed romances with Marlon Brando, Ben Gazzara, Gig Young, and Rock Hudson; marriage and a hit sitcom in London; understudying for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam on Broadway while performing in Pal Joey in New Haven; bouts with alcoholism and diabetes, and an abysmal regional production of The Women (see how everything ties together in the theatre?).

Stritch's trademark whiskey-soaked voice delivers the goods with renditions of songs that are unquestionably hers: "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Zip," "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" and many others. Her anecdotes are alternately riotous and heartrending as we journey with her from alcoholic self-hatred to sober self-acceptance. The credits read the show was "constructed" by The New Yorker's John Lahr and "reconstructed" by Stritch. Whatever that means, it works. BSW

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