Celebrities theatrically pleasure themselves on Broadway

Broadway stages have never looked so bare. Big stars like Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Mario Cantone, and Dame Edna are currently starring in solo vehicles, as is everyone's favorite vagina monologuist, Eve Ensler, whose new body-part show moves the discussion north to her belly roll. The good news is that the Tonys might be funny this year. The bad? Most of the work seems like the theatrical equivalent of the theme restaurants colonizing the new Times Square.

Why are these luminaries going it alone? The reasons range from ego (who needs a second banana?) to economics (a cast of one is a helluva lot cheaper than a teeming musical). Clearly there's also a craving for something more direct and vital than typical Broadway fare. The $100-a-pop nostalgia rides—from Mamma Mia! to the screen-to-stage musical fiascos—have become exasperating, to say the least.

Yet there's something undeniably retro about the current solo phenomenon. For one thing, the acts tend to fall into the category of traditional stand-up. Cantone and Dame Edna would have given Don Rickles and Totie Fields a run for their money, while Goldberg and Crystal are essentially offering formulaic Emmy-winning television comedy specials.

Mario Cantone: Servicing for hilarity
photo: Bill Streicher
Mario Cantone: Servicing for hilarity

Performance art this is not. Soloists like Eric Bogosian, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes—artists who mined their most private selves for public revelation—are a vastly different breed from Oscar hosts. Try to imagine Whoopi or Billy covering themselves in chocolate sauce to convey the shame of childhood sexual abuse. Suffice it to say, radical vulnerability and the Academy Awards do not mix.

What's curious is how even the less mainstream personalities are purveying carefully packaged personas right now. Cantone offers a glitzier version of his Caroline's routine, the exasperated-Italian American-queen shtick that won him a recurring part on Sex and the City. Dame Edna has timed her stage "comeback" perfectly with the release of the boxed DVD set of The Dame Edna Experience. And while Ensler may be courageously exposing a middle-aged midriff, she's pursuing tactics similar to those used in her Vagina Monologues.

Stars with the most Hollywood wattage can't help but outshine the competition—at least in the publicity arena. The Post has dubbed Crystal "King of Broadway," though king of schmaltz would be more apt. 700 Sundays is like a carefully staged infomercial, funnier than his Barbara Walters interview, though somehow less emotionally credible.

Standing outside a replica of the Long Beach tract house he grew up in, Crystal shows home videos, which, thanks to his illustrious jazz heritage, aren't totally devoid of interest. His father ran the legendary Commodore Music Shop on East 42nd Street. His uncle, Milton Gabler, was a recording-industry mogul who worked with Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald and produced the song "Rock Around the Clock." When Crystal was a boy, Holiday took him to see the movie Shane, a detail that gets gobbled into the legend of how a guy little more than five foot seven—a baseball fanatic whose teen heart was broken when his father passed away—became the favorite emcee of "Hollywood's biggest night."

Despite the pleasure of Crystal's genial company, the stories bear a postcard's relationship to truth. His lucrative genius is for pushing all the right baby-boomer buttons—the sophomoric jokes (about his obstreperous teenage penis and flatulent grandfather), the sentimentality (his journey from Nassau Community College nobody to household name, his mother's eventual stroke). For two and a half hours, the audience indulges him, and by extension their own neighborly sense of themselves. Crystal is, after all, one of us. Ask his buddy Joe Torre if you don't believe me.

Goldberg doesn't bother to retread her storied past (from the housing projects to Beverly Hills) in Whoopi, a star vehicle that recycles characters from her Broadway premiere 20 years ago, the show that put her on the map. An icon every bit as big as Crystal, she sells her sensibility rather than her story. Goldberg doesn't so much act as deploy her personality. A raised eyebrow sends her audiences into convulsions, and when she pauses, they stop breathing.

The first third of Whoopi is strong stuff. As Fontaine, a male junkie who's an unusually astute political observer, Goldberg updates the character's monologues and bags herself some Bush. "I went to bed after 9-11 hearing we wuz going to war in Afghanistan," says Fontaine, in a permanent druggy haze. "I woke up the next day and we wuz in Iraq!" Commenting on the capture of Saddam, he asks, "How hard can it be to find Osama, a seven-foot guy in the desert dragging a dialysis machine?"

When Whoopi's unplugged (talking to the audience, riffing on one of Fontaine's news flashes), you understand how she got as far as she did. A sense of daring charges the air like an oncoming storm. But when she's pulling old characters out of her trunk (a pregnant Valley girl, a physically disabled woman being unexpectedly romanced), you see the limits of her talent. Goldberg makes cartoons of cartoons. She doesn't have Ruth Draper's fabled ability to birth nuanced multitudes; nor does she have Lily Tomlin's knack for breathing unexpected life into loony types. Goldberg's at her best when she's peeking out of a role, a sly clown breaking through claustrophobic convention.

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