Theater archives

Short Attention Span


Hey, at least it’s short, in both senses. And it’s funny. If there aren’t too many major guffaws, there’s a steady supply of rib-ticklers. You’ve got to love Martin Short—he throws himself into everything with such fervor that if you didn’t, he’d probably come and threaten you. Or at least plead with you until you gave in. And in his frenetic way, Short is lovable: With his edge-of-caricature face—he looks like a nice-guy version of Batman’s archenemy the Joker—and his slightly too large head topping his gangly-gamin body, he’s built for speed and for comedy. Why hasn’t anybody ever thought of casting him as Puck, or Feste, or Tony Lumpkin, or any of the thousand mischief-makers who inhabit—and electrify—the great plays of the past? For that matter, why haven’t any of our living playwrights sat down to dream up a role for this gifted and charming artist to embody? Along with vision and ambition, our theater lacks common sense; it doesn’t think up practical ways to make the best use of its best materials. As Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me painfully proves, Martin Short is too engaging a performer to be left to his own ideas, or a committee’s ideas, of what constitutes a theatrical evening.

What those ideas have led to is a crepe-paper-thin variety show that barely survives its intermissionless 95-minute length even as an excuse for watching Short. Ostensibly a parody of Broadway’s economy-conscious one-person shows, crammed with showbiz allusions and in-jokes, it goes so far in that it comes out on the other side, becoming the thing that it supposedly set out to ridicule. Though Short repeatedly lauds his Broadway attendees as “the hippest audience in the world,” the targets of his spoofery are so familiar and so long gone—Katharine Hepburn, Burton and Taylor, the musical staging of O’Horgan, Fosse, and Tommy Tune—that the show has the eerie feel of something newly manufactured to look thrift-shop antique. Unlike a revue, of which the dual purpose is to present fresh material and display the performers to best advantage, the show looks over its own shoulder so constantly that its sense of déjà vu becomes its point of pride. And unlike a variety or vaudeville show, in which the pleasure is seeing skilled artists do the routines they’ve spent years perfecting, the evening is too busy keeping its archaism up-to-date, what with Mel Gibson jokes and guest-star victims, to relish the past it aspires to ridicule. In essence, it looks like an evening-long audition—an absurdity for Short, who’s long since proven his abilities as actor, singer, and dancer as well as his knack for both sketch comedy and stand-up. He needs, and deserves, a role.

Interestingly, the one moment at which Fame Becomes Me jumps to life is also the one at which it makes a relatively new and relatively daring joke: the next-to-closing spot in which Capathia Jenkins, the only member of Short’s supporting cast to get a chance that’s more than a setup or a fleeting bit, takes over the stage to sing a parody of those numbers in recent musicals in which a “big black lady” brings the house down in a gospel rhythm. This supplies a double helping of poetic justice: Not only does its directness give the audience something to connect with emotionally at last, but it gives the experienced New York theatergoer the delight of seeing Jenkins, who has been misused as a shout-mama object in such Broadway misfortunes as The Look of Love and Frank Wildhorn’s The Civil War, turn the stereotype back on its perpetrators, with humor and individuality as well as vocal dazzle. This makes up for the joke itself (basically an update of the “Jews on Broadway” joke in Spamalot) being slightly used, and also for the faint sense of subjugation that you get from seeing everybody else onstage acting only as feeds for Short. Nothing he says or does all evening resonates in my memory like the gratification of hearing the graciously purred “Top that, motherfucker” with which Jenkins smilingly rounds off her song.

And Short can’t top it, not even by coming in on one of Mary Martin’s old fly wires, six feet over Jenkins’s head. He can’t top it because the assemblage of tidbits and foolery with which he’s pasted together the evening gives him no sustained opportunities. We know he can do bits; we know it’s the nature of comedy and comedians to take back every assertion as it’s made; we know that, with television, human attention spans have gotten shorter. But we also know that the stage isn’t TV, and that when you’re in the same room with somebody you expect them to pay you some sustained attention, and not always be hopping away in distraction to show off some other thing that will make you more impressed with them. The audience pays sustained attention to Martin Short, and he doesn’t really return the favor—unlike, ironically, several of the solo performers he’s parodying. With a little self-control and a little artistic discipline, skills that he obviously has, his multi-person one-man show might have been more of an entertainment and less of an ego display. And we might really be able to say of Martin Short that his fame became him. Even better, since he already has his fame, he could pour his abilities into a great role, and deserve it.