All Things Entertaining and Cultural
A friendship — enduring, intimate, and deep — begins when a woman looks casually around a room, sees a man cowering behind a potted tree, and joins him to find out why he is hiding.
Nothing about the room, the man, or the woman is ordinary. In fact, the occasion of the meeting is the stuff of television history, the first gathering of the original cast and crew of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” in Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Center, New York. The caliber of comic minds and comic talent in the room amazes even those who have been chosen to be part of the “SNL” team, and the man is truly daunted by it.
The curious woman learns he wants to stay out of sight because he has not thought of an opening-night sketch and doesn’t want producer Lorne Michaels to call on him for an idea.
No problem there. When the man’s name is called at random, the woman steps from behind the tree and announces she and the writer have worked out a bit in which she plays a parrot who speaks like Julie Andrews.
The woman demonstrates. Instead of shrieking “awk, awk,” she delivers parrot gibberish in perfectly rounded tones. The idea is applauded, the day is saved, and the man can retreat from his hiding place, which he claims was a healthy one because the tree emitted oxygen that helped him breathe while he was hyperventilating, a story that becomes even more far-fetched when the woman points out the tree is artificial.
The woman is Gilda Radner, who would eclipse Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman to become the ‘First Lady’ among the “SNL” cast, then go on to star in Broadway shows and feature films until cancer ended her life in 1989, at age 42. The man is Alan Zweibel, a comedy writer who continues plying his trade and, in recent years, has been on the writing teams of “Monk” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Their relationship provides the material for Zweibel’s “Bunny Bunny” a warm, likeable play, being performed though Oct. 27 by 1812 Productions on the third floor of the Walnut Street Theatre.
Although its characters are two comic geniuses, “Bunny Bunny” works best when it is at is most conversational, when clever or funny things happen to be said in passing, more as expressions or explanations, than as intentional jokes. Zweibel chooses to tell his and Radner’s story in a series of sketches, most of which take place in a personal, rather than a professional, setting. These include a brief time when the two were romantic partners. Besides the two leads, Zweibel adds a third character who can portray anything from an unsanitary waiter to a foreign cab driver and who usually rakes up the laughs so that Radner and Zweibel, drawn from their real lives, can be more natural. The third character’s antics may, however, turn up in an “SNL” skit.
The humor in”Bunny Bunny” is mild as opposed to being rollicking. Jokes written as jokes tend to backfire, as if Zweibel put too much effort behind them. They come off like sitcom salvos and seem as if they should be accompanied by a laugh track. Wisecracks and silly turns of phrase in the course of a speech work better.
The story is bittersweet, with the usual assortment of high and low points ranging from Radner and Zweibel enjoying the success they help bring to “SNL” to the more sentimental sections that precede Radner’s death. The best written, and certainly the most moving, scene in “Bunny Bunny” is one in which the friends suspect they may be having their last meaningful meeting. Zweibel’s writing here is sincere and touching, and 1812 director, Noah Herman, and his cast present it affectingly.
You may be able to tell I wish I could be a bigger fan of this play, especially considering the remarkable performance of Leah Walton, in the 1812 staging. While I never find the piece boring or uninteresting, I find it a tad pedestrian except for its beginning and end. The details of Radner’s or Zweibel’s lives — loves gained, loves lost, lots of work, no work — are typical and the subject of many plays. I know the core of “Bunny Bunny” is how the friends share big moments in their lives, and even upheavals in the relationship, but except for understanding intellectually the core of the relationship, I find Zweibel’s play to be ordinary in a way Radner’s comedy never was.
Given the solid nature of the writing, I don’t think there was much more Herman could do to take “Bunny Bunny” to a higher plane than the script allows. By concentrating on the friendship more than the one-liners, he keeps the show at a human level that makes it warm and sweet. We appreciate the characters most when they wear their comic masks incidentally, and Herman accentuates those moments.
“Bunny Bunny” does not have to introduce most of the audience to its female lead. My guess would be most people walk in knowing they love Gilda Radner, not only because of her sad passing at a young age when she had so much more to offer, and as Zweibel tells us, so much happiness to enjoy from her marriage to Gene Wilder, but because she entertained so zanily in her “SNL” days. Radner’s ongoing characters were funnier than anyone else’s. Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner, and especially Baba Wawa remain classic creations that surpass even the Blues Brothers or Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy as the best “SNL” offered. Ever.
Radner’s story creates interest for the show. That interest is more than rewarded in the smart, agile, quirky, and ultimately affecting performance of Leah Walton.
From the first time you see Walton, right before she heads to explore behind that artificial tree, you see the Radner-like glint in her eye, a look of amusement with life that says she’s game for anything that might occur, even discovering a man who is afraid to speak.
Whether Gilda is performing, complaining, or speaking calmly to Zweibel, Walton finds the perfect tone and mood for the occasion. You want her to improvise, as Radner does, so you can see what might result. Walton not only plays scenes well, she conveys the promise that any choice she makes on stage will be honest and entertaining. You want to see what she’ll say or do next, just as you did with Radner when she was on “SNL.”
Walton’s performance has a lot of range. She plays Radner’s insecurities in ways that make you feel for someone who is always reaching for the top of her game and doesn’t quite believe it when everyone tells her she’s doing just fine. When Gilda blows a line during an “SNL,” sketch, Walton shows the mood change, how the mistake ruins Radner’s whole perception of herself and her work despite the fact she got a big laugh, and the audience never knew she got something wrong.
Walton shows strength and vulnerability with equal aplomb. Best of all, as Gilda matures emotionally, Walton lets you see the new confidence, the settling into happiness that Gilda knows won’t be threatened. The change adds pathos and depth to the last meeting.
Matt Pfeiffer contributes mightily to that scene as well. As Zweibel, he isn’t given the range of behavior Gilda is. The playwright, writing about himself, creates a steady, even-going, clean-cut guy who may go through a crise or two, but is on stage mainly to guide us through Gilda’s life and to make clear the indelible nature of the pair’s friendship.
Pfeiffer is a generous actor. He knows he has several mots justes to deliver, but the heavy comic lifting will go to Walton and the factotum who plays the dozen or so extra parts, Matt Tallman. He leaves the field to them while always making his character welcome by playing Zweibel as a ‘mensch’ who happens to help produce some of television’s best comedy of the last 35 years. Pfeiffer never makes Zweibel stand out. He is a willing and gracious witness to genius and a great friend and companion to a woman who appreciates having him in her life.
Matt Tallman has several marvelous moments and seems thoroughly to enjoy going from beard to drag as he portrays all the ancillary characters in Zweibel’s sketches.
By the way, “Bunny Bunny” refers to a ploy by Radner’s father to keep her from being afraid of monsters in the dark. Radner retained a superstition that she could ward off evil spirits by making Bunny Bunny the first word she said on the 1st of each month.
“Bunny Bunny,” produced by 1812 Productions, runs through Sunday, October 27, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Thursday and Sunday (the last Thursday matinee being Oct. 10). Tickets range from $40 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 215-592-9560 or going online to www.1812productions.org.