Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress
Can we talk? I remember first seeing Joan Rivers performing live in the late 70s at a tiny little supperclub off Little Santa Monica in Beverly Hills. She was, of course, blindingly funny and ruthlessly topical. Now, thirtysomething years later, Rivers has returned to LA’s Westside with her new autobiographical “play” Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress at Geffen Playhouse. Sadly, as funny as Rivers still is, this world premiere presentation, even energized by the imaginative directorial leadership of local Evidence Room hero Bart DeLorenzo, is about as topical as her soulless cable TV interviews with minor fleeting celebrities on the red carpet or her presumably lucrative sideline hawking dubiously chic wares on QVC.
Once again, it’s a given that Rivers is mightily funny. At 74, she can still verbally nail an adversary to the proscenium, swear like a longshoreman, offer wicked observations about aging fallen vaginas that resemble bunny slippers, or dispense a barrage of self-deprecating gags about the ongoing surgical marathon that has left her with less facial expression than a housecat (she says her grandson calls her Nana New Face). She makes numerous jokes about Jews, geriatric dating, gay sex, AstroGlide, and feminine products (“I hate the Olsen Twins,” she easily confides. “Does this tampon make me look fat?”) but her life and career, as related in A Work in Progress by Rivers and her co-writers Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell, is defined by the worst of attributes. It’s as though she’s decided her greatest and most personally rewarding accomplishment over the years has been creating that tired red carpet niche for herself just when she thought her career was in the toilet, while so many other aspects of her life that could be potentially healing to share with her audience are either given the back burner or are accompanied by the phoniest of crocodile tears.
If it appears at first as though this night is going to reveal anything profound, forget it. There’s no doubt in Rivers’ delivery that her proudest moment in the entire show, for which she comes right down center and stands in a (surprisingly forgiving) spotlight to loudly proclaim, with arms spread wide and a look of triumph to rival Joan d’Arc, is that she coined the phrase “Who are you wearing?” In a world gone mad, that’s purdy negligible news to me. Sure, there are moments when Rivers talks about her husband’s suicide, her former estrangement with her daughter, or her blacklisting from nighttime TV by her old pal Johnny Carson. Yet, try as DeLorenzo and her costars do to make something real about all this, the dramatic moments in this Work in Progress are about as sincere as its star’s surgically fabricated smile.
It’s truly the other performers in Rivers’ cast who supply the most interesting moments, particularly the wonderfully nebbishy Adam Kulbersh as Kenny, a bumbling, sheepish producers’ assistant who’s been assigned to get the granddame diva out of set designer Tom Buderwitz’ onstage dressing room and ready to face the cameras for one of those red carpet events. Emily Kosloski is a delight as the Russian transplant Svetlana, a presumably untrained greencard-less makeup artist allocated to Rivers who really wants a singing career, and Tara Joyce makes a memorable 11th-hour appearance as the network’s coldly ruthless new CEO ready to can the star in favor of younger talent. Add in Evidence Room veterans Leo Marks and Dorie Barton, who stand outside the theatre and improvise a dead-on impression of typically plastic-fantastic “news” correspondents assigned to introduce the event, and the supporting players far outshine the major attraction.
It’s an ingenious theatrical premise that the Geffen stage is a dressing room where Rivers transforms herself before hitting the red carpet, especially as she is assigned Dressing Room B while her daughter Melissa is given Dressing Room A. She also admits a lot can be determined about a career such as hers by the size of the cheese plate brought in by the network. If it’s all brie and a good creamy camembert, the future looks rosy, but here, it seems she’s been reduced to Laughing Cow; when a star has to unwrap her own cheese, she’s in trouble, we’re told. Putting Rivers’ audience in Dressing Room B with her, as she breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to us, cleverly allows the comedian a chance to mock the possibility of getting ready to air in 90 minutes (“Honey, I’m 135 years old” she tells Kulbersh’s fawning lackey, “it takes me 90 minutes to get into the makeup chair”), as well as speculate that the recent Malibu fires might have been caused by an old duffer with a Cialis-induced 36-hour erection starting a spark by furiously humping his dried up spouse and observe that it only “takes one pussy hair to pull a freight train.”
As potentially hilarious as all this is, the one-joke premise of Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress quickly falls flat. Edward Albee observed in a recent interview that all art must be useful. “If it’s merely decorative, that’s not enough,” the great dramatist has come to believe. “If it’s only about us, it’s limiting. Most of us are not interesting enough to deserve an entire play written about us. Most of what we invent is a lot more interesting than we are.” Maybe pussy hair loses some of its power to haul by age 74 but, as is, next time Joan Rivers checks out her dressing room cheese plate while touring in this Work in Progress, it might just be Velveeta.
Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress… plays through Mar. 2 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, CA; for tickets, call 310.208.5454. For more information, visit www.geffenplayhouse.com