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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Joan Rivers a Work in Progress by a Work in Progress
In a life that hasn’t always been lucky, Rivers lucked out by opening her show at the Geffen Theatre two days after the Writers Strike was settled and we knew the Oscar show would go on. Standing at the door smiling and shaking hands was Gilbert Cates, Producing Director of the Geffen, and long-time producer of the Oscars, who was instrumental in settling the Directors Guild strike When this visitor told him she thought he’d be home writing, he laughed and said, "I did that last week!" Two hosts in evening clothes played red carpet anchors Chase and Blake in the lobby with their images repeated inside the theatre against a streaming video of the Oscar red carpet crowd.
Unlike most autobiographical shows, Rivers and co-writers Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell have embedded historical monologues throughout their comedy. It’s set in a theatre’s second-best dressing room before an awards show where Rivers not only gets the Laughing Cow cheese plate instead of the Brie but her long time staffers have been replaced by the producer’s klutzy brother-in-law Kenny (Adam Kulbersh) and a Russian cosmetologist Svetlana (Emily Kosloski). Kenny hangs her costumes in the bathroom to steam out the wrinkles in the running shower and, well, you can see where that’s going.
Along the way the lights dim periodically, leaving Joan alone in the spot to tell us true life stories. She wasn’t the smart or the pretty sister in her family, although both girls were Phi Beta Kappa. She struggled through temp jobs and grotty one-night stands for six years before, with an assist from Bill Cosby, she got booked on the Johnny Carson show.
That was her big break, resulting in many Carson bookings as guest and guest host, and eventually an offer from Fox to do her own show. When she accepted, Carson never spoke to her again. She says she doesn’t know why and acknowledges him as the best straight man she ever worked with. In other monologues she talks about the firing of her husband and manager from the Fox show when, though told she could stay, she left with him. Four days later he committed suicide, leaving his estate to their 16-year-old daughter Melissa.
It was, obviously, a hard time to be the mother of a teen-age daughter and now business partner, to say nothing of having to start over again at age 56. But Rivers didn’t re-invent herself. Stubbornly and with panache, she kept doing what she’d been doing, what she’d always loved. She says she was inspired to do her autobiographical show by Elaine Stritch, who leavened her Elaine Stritch at Liberty with her signature songs. Rivers doesn’t sing and some of her jokes work better than others. Like all great clowns, she’s always been unafraid to make a fool of herself. Many women have found her outrageous persona supportive and that comes across here. Director Bart de Lorenzo’s keen directing ear has kept the show funny, honest and poignant, never letting it teeter into bitterness or excessive vulgarity.
The dressing room scenes aren’t all about funny. Rivers puts her demotion down to three little letters: age. That’s verified by the glacial young new VP, Ms. Goodheart (Tara Joyce) who drops by to fire her. Joan disposes of her just as she claims she did of the cinematographer who ruined her first movie, by telling the Jewish studio boss he was anti-Semitic.
Rivers takes those 74 years and makes them work for her. She d oesn't say this is only the beginning but it sure doesn’t sound like Sayonara. More like Encore!
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide