Celebrities theatrically pleasure themselves on Broadway

In Laugh Whore, a solo grab bag of dish and dirt, Cantone starts off uproariously—he's a sniper let loose on Entertainment Tonight. Crawling up and down his stool (on a set decked out with white bulbs like a '70s variety show), he relates celebrity vignettes National Enquirer-style. As an actor in other people's plays, Cantone can't shake his own seething sissy persona, yet he's a first-rate mimic. Moving from a soused and jowly Shelley Winters on Inside the Actors Studio ("I fucked all my leading men . . . Kirk Douglas, James Francis, Tony Franciosa, Lauren Bacall") to his own Mommie Dearest transformation in the backseat of a cab ("I told you to drive up Sixth Avenue across 44th Street. Why must you defy me?"), he wields a face of Silly Putty and a taut little Chelsea body that will wiggle into any position to skewer the rich and famous.

Hostility becomes him. No one in the history of show business has invested the word friggin' with so much comic fury. Stabbing his index finger in the air, he punctuates anecdotes with paroxysms of common sense ("You guys, Cher has an Oscar!"). But all the anger in the world can't sustain the helium heights of Laugh Whore's opening. Determined to give us a full evening, Cantone exhausts himself and his material. The increasingly potty-mouthed antics devolve into a Fire Island cabaret (exactly what he was accused of doing when he was the unlikely host of the kiddie show Steampipe Alley). Yes, he really does a Garland number ("My Name Is Gumm"), complete with tousled hair and syntax. By the time he reels off a string of amusing Vagina Monologues celebrity substitutes (Britney Spears: "My vagina has no talent"), he's overstayed his welcome by a good 45 minutes. Still, the memory of that initial hilarity keeps us hoping for another fix.

There's little chance that Cantone will be doing parodies of Ensler's new show, The Good Body, a piece that seems like it was commissioned by Oprah Winfrey. Do people really want to pay Broadway prices to hear a successful theater person rant about her paunch? Genitals at least carry the frisson of the forbidden. Flabby stomachs, as anyone who has strolled on a beach can attest, have no such allure. Were it not for the breakout success of The Vagina Monologues, Ensler's latest wouldn't have had a prayer of getting produced. Unlike Cantone, she's not adept at caricaturing others (she's too nice to be truly cutting). Worse, her wit comes laced with self-help messages, the dividends of her travels from Helen Gurley Brown's office to sharing a bowl of ice cream with a burka-wearing Afghan woman. "I eat the ice cream for women in Kabul and Kandahar," she says. Well, everyone has to take a stand sometime.

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

The franchise known as Dame Edna sticks to one noble crusade—the attainment of maximum profits. No price is too great for her devoted fans to pay for the honor of being insulted by the purple-haired hausfrau from Oz. As she explains early on in Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance, "This show is all about you. How you fit into the human scheme." She has other ways of describing what she does ("cutting-edge caring," "tough love"), but what's telling is how her victims can't get enough. Take, for instance, the middle-aged businesswoman from Queens, whom Edna cross-examined with a battery of real estate questions ("Do you have a view, dear? I want you to tell me exactly what you see outside your window"). That her mark publicly admitted to an outer-borough address was all Edna needed to go on one of her "empowering" rampages.

Somehow no one gets offended. Her targets are willing not only to give up their shoes for Edna's psychic readings (otherwise known as "pedomancy") but later to come up on stage and enact her life story. Why do these humiliated dupes look like they're having the time of their lives? Because Edna's creator and alter ego, Barry Humphries, is a consummate, not to say corrosive, wit.

While Crystal does everything to convince us that he's still Billy from the block, and Goldberg that she's still down with the people, Edna revels in her own flagrant fraudulence. She a genuine fake. Perhaps this explains why she's better at staying in character than her solo rivals: She understands what her possums are paying for, and by God, she's going to give it to them.

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