© New York Times
Nov. 20, 2003
Recycling Endangered Species of Jokes
By Bruce Weber
Ruth Gottschall, Cheryl Stern, Darrin Baker, Robert Creighton and Barry Finkel are the five performers in "Laughing Room Only" who put in an honest day's work. They're the singers and dancers who are charged with surrounding the star, keeping his ego inflated and occasionally, when he needs a break from repeating his old routines, putting on the musical vaudeville numbers that make up most of the show's original material. It isn't their fault that this is some of the trashiest musical comedy material ever written for the Broadway stage. They deserve credit — and their paychecks — for their professional pluck.
The same can't be said for the star of the show, Jackie Mason, though his name is uttered so frequently that it seems redundant to mention it here. Around and between the musical bits (music and lyrics by Doug Katsaros) and strung together by a nominal book (by Dennis Blair and Digby Wolfe), Mr. Mason offers plenty of his well-known Jewish shtick, which includes banter with audience members in the front row, irreverent and often vulgar political commentary, and observations of behavioral differences in religious and ethnic groups that play fast and loose with the line between humor and hate speech.
He has had six one-man shows on Broadway, and no matter how many of his former fans have, like me, fallen away over the years as his material has grown staler and less shrewd and his demeanor more intolerant and self-justifying, legions of admirers will undoubtedly track him to the Brooks Atkinson Theater, where "Laughing Room Only" opened last night.
Perhaps it's fruitless to try to dissuade them. But in the interest of consumer advocacy, it needs to be said that by conservative estimate half of Mr. Mason's solo material in "Laughing Room Only" has been recycled. This includes an opening in which the practiced bits about the uselessness of neckties and a comparison of how Jews and gentiles differ in their approach to buying Broadway tickets have been lifted from his previous show, "Prune Danish." He also repeats a rant against Indians working as cabdrivers and revisits the sexual appetites of Bill Clinton. Surely no other comedian on earth is still grazing on that fodder.
The rest of his material is merely lazy, late or dunderheaded. His barbs aimed at President Bush are uninspired, and he doesn't mind reaching deep into comedy history: "I go to Puerto Rico every year, to visit my hubcaps," might be the oldest tasteless joke ever uttered on a Broadway stage. A musical number that goes on and on about the proliferation of Starbucks coffee shops (yawn) is followed by Mr. Mason's angrily funny but way too long discourse on peddling "burnt coffee in a cardboard cup." He equates the French with the snooty. And he asserts that people who claim to like and understand Picasso, Shakespeare or opera are merely pretentious.
It's all part of the courtship of an audience. But "Laughing Room Only" also insults its audience: they're the ones paying up to $90 a ticket for recycled material.
LAUGHING ROOM ONLY
Music and lyrics by Doug Katsaros; book by Dennis Blair and Digby Wolfe; additional material by Jackie Mason; music direction and vocal arrangements by Joseph Baker; choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld; directed by Robert Johanson; sets by Michael Anania; costumes by Thom Heyer; lighting by Paul D. Miller; sound by Peter Hylenski; orchestration by Mr. Katsaros; dance arrangements by Ian Herman; production stage manager, C. Randall White. Presented by Jyll Rosenfeld, Jon Stoll and James Scibelli, in association with Sidney Kimmel, John Morgan and the Helen Hayes Theater Company. At the Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: Jackie Mason, Ruth Gottschall, Cheryl Stern, Darrin Baker, Robert Creighton and Barry Finkel.
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