By Matthew G. Moross
LATHAM — With a title nearly as lengthy as its subject’s life, “Say Goodnight Gracie: The Life, Laughter and Love of George Burns and Gracie Allen” may not prove the most well-crafted play, but there is little argument that its subject matter is irresistible and entertaining. And “Oh, God!” this comedy evening just might be what we need these days.
Well anchored by an engaging and impressive solo stage performance from local stage veteran Philip C. Rice as Burns, the evening, like its subject, rarely tires, ages or outstays its welcome.
Celebrating the centenarian’s career from his early days singing on street corners in the “Pee Wee Quartet” and tossing fish to an early Vaudeville partner Flipper the seal, the evening travels through to his later years highlighting his Oscar-winning performance in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” and then to audience-winning performances as “the almighty” in a series of film comedies in the late 1970s.
But the heart of the show and the heart of George Burns belong to the partnership with his wife, Gracie Allen. Allen was a unique and brilliant comic, and it is not a cliché to state that she was a true original, a comic angel.
The genius of Burns was that he saw Allen’s ability, nurtured it and cherished it. With the voice of a pixie and a persona of a sweet innocent with a sly streak, Allen was the perfect foil to Burns’ straight-man setups. So many of their vaudeville routines are comedy classics and play well to this day with their observational humor, double entendre and construction.
CBS struck gold with the couple’s television show in the 1950s, and “The Burns and Allen Show” was and still is astonishingly funny, with its comic innovations clearly visible in myriad television shows that followed.
Unfortunately, originality and brilliance cannot be ascribed to Rupert Holmes’ “Say Goodnight Gracie” script. Holmes may be a gifted composer (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) and playwright (“Accomplice”), but his celebratory monodrama of Burns is plagued by the accursed “and then I did this” syndrome.
The playwright’s weak framing device doesn’t help, serving only to accentuate the issue, and the play becomes little more that a staged Wikipedia page with the chapter headings woefully predictable and visible from miles away. Early life, Stage to Screen, Radio, Filmography, Later Years and Death are presented to us in such an obvious manner that the show nearly morphs into a hostless evening of “This is Your Life” instead of a conversational and wistful reexamination of a life well lived.
The play, at 90 minutes with no intermission, is brief and that is to its benefit.
Thankfully, stage veteran Philip C. Rice is able to overcome the arid script and creates an entertaining and pleasant evening as the legend wanders through the scrapbook of his life. The living-room setting — augmented by occasional projections of Burns’ photo album and several all-too-brief audio clips of classic Burns-and-Allen comedy quips — works well, and Rice earns high praise for keeping the pace brisk and on point.
Not relying on strict imitation, Rice captures Burns’ spirit without caricature or cartoon. Utilizing the trademark cigar, round glasses and easy manner, the actor masterfully creates an enjoyable visit with a not-to be forgotten American cultural icon.
‘Say Goodnight Gracie’
WHERE: Curtain Call Theater, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham
WHEN: Through Oct. 17; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. and select Saturday matinees at 3 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $28
MORE INFO: 518-877-7529; www.curtaincalltheatre.com