George Burns, having just died, finds himself in limbo. To enter heaven and reunite with his professional partner and beloved wife, Gracie Allen, he has to audition for God. The audition is a recounting of his life.
Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on the New York's Lower East Side. The play begins with several humorous anecdotes about his childhood and early performing career, told with appreciative irony. The young Burns shared a weekly bathtub of hot water with several siblings and a dog. Still a kid, he undertook a number of jobs to help keep the family afloat after his father's sudden death. He found that people would pay to hear him sing, and -- despite innumerable failures -- his infatuation with show business bloomed into passion when he teamed up with a young Irish Catholic vaudevillian named Gracie Allen.
Audiences will learn a lot about show-business history in Say Goodnight Gracie -- not in a pedantic way, but by watching the young couple discovering their own path. Theater-goers will discover what a "disappointment act" is -- an act called in when the featured performer cancels. You come to understand how glamorous vaudeville seemed to these relatively poor young people, but also how grinding, difficult and uncertain.
After their first performance together -- which bombs -- Burns realizes that Allen is much funnier than he is. It's too late to develop new material, so he proposes that they switch lines, and he assumes the role of straight man. Instantly, they're a hit, and for the rest of their careers, Burns works self-effacingly to showcase Allen. The couple's professional development is like an illustration of twentieth-century entertainment as they succeed, sequentially, in vaudeville, radio and television.
But at the height of their success, a tired Gracie Allen decides to retire and, reluctantly, Burns supports her decision. Not too long afterward, she dies. The play reminds us that Burns visited Allen's grave at Forest Hills regularly for the rest of his life.
At the age of 79, Burns began a new phase of his career when he was offered a role in the film of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys and won an Oscar for it. He proceeded to make several more films, including Oh, God. He died in 1996, a few weeks after his hundredth birthday.
I had heard of Gracie Allen before seeing Say Goodnight Gracie, but I knew nothing about her. One of the pleasures of the play is the opportunity to learn -- through video clips and the recorded voice of actress Didi Conn speaking Allen's words -- who she was and just why she was so beloved. The Burns and Allen humor is gently demented and features what Burns called an illogical logic that gives everyday phrases and events an Alice in Wonderland absurdity. Gracie Allen had the ditzy sweetness we associate with a lot of comediennes of the era, combined with a deluded matter-of-factness.
Rupert Holmes, author of Say Goodnight Gracie, is a highly accomplished jack-of-all- trades, an award-winning mystery novelist and composer of musicals -- book, lyrics and music. His script is lively and crisp, and it keeps sentimentality to a refreshing minimum. Director John Tillinger does a masterful job, utilizing a simple, warmly lit set and a skillful selection of photographic and video images.
But it's Frank Gorshin's performance as George Burns that keeps the evening entertainingly afloat. Good impressionists don't just mimic their subjects; they become them, and Gorshin simply is George Burns for an hour and a half. He has the man's walk and mannerisms; he also seems to possess his spirit. Gorshin is confident, self-deprecating and entirely believable, and in his hands, the process of transformation feels respectful rather than invasive -- even when he's expressing Burns's deep and very personal love for Gracie. Gorshin also accomplishes an amazing feat when we hear Gracie's recorded vaudeville patter. He manages to be simultaneously her 1920s stage partner, pausing after her punchlines for Burns's trademark double take, and George Burns many years later, listening to his dead wife's voice with wistful affection and then turning to share her with us, his audience.
Say Goodnight Gracie is a lovely tribute to a fertile period in American comedy, and to a genuinely original comic couple. It also turns out, when Burns finishes his audition monologue, that God likes it. And who am I to argue with God?
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