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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Dynamic Production of Only Kidding
at Playhouse West

Also see Richard's review of White Disabled Talent and Surface Transit

Playhouse West is currently presenting Jim Geoghan’s off Broadway hit Only Kidding. The drama was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding New Play for 1988-1989 season. The poignant play received rave reviews from New York papers and it ran an amazing 500 performances.

Only Kidding illustrates the mirth and adversities that stand-up comedians have to tolerate as they try to get the big break that will put them on top of the heap. Jim Geoghan knew the topic he was writing about since he had been a stand-up comic during his 20s, before he became a very successful television comedy writer. He harbored a regret and failure for having been turned down as a guest on The Tonight Show during his stand-up comedy years and this is the crux of his comedy-drama.

Only Kidding has rarely been produced since its off Broadway run, probably due to the extensive use of four letter words throughout the play. In fact, artistic director Lois Grandi wondered how the play would go over with her middle class audience who might be shocked by the racy language of the comics. A version of the play with the four letter words excised is available, but Grandi said it wasn’t as fun and without these words the play did not work well.

Only Kidding takes place in the '80s in a Catskill bungalow, and it is about an over-the-hill comic who is desperate for a shot on a late night popular television talk show like Johnny Carson's show. He knows he will be seen by millions of people and that it will be his “big break.” The main character, Jackie Dwayne (Roland Scrivner), is reminiscent of an old fashioned Henny Youngman comic who is full of one line zingers. Dwayne is worried about some new material so his agent invites a hip young writer Sheldon Kelinski (Rusty Gilland) to help him update his act for an appearance on the top rated Buddy King Show. The tension between them is massive and it terminates in a battle of wills. You are not sure who is helping who, but the banter between them is brilliant writing.

The second scene of the first act takes place in a sleazy night club basement in Brooklyn run by a Mafia-type guy. Jerry Goldstein (Raffi Kondy) and Tom Kelly (David Hern) are an upcoming comedy team patterned after Martin and Lewis who are still working in second class sleazy night clubs. They are also looking for that big break that will put them into big league. The weasel of a nightclub owner, Sal D’Angelo (Anthony Finocchiaro), makes them an offer they can hardly refuse. He can get them a gig on the Buddy King Show, but there is a big catch. Sal wants to be their manager and take 30% of the take, leaving very little for the comics. Also, they will be facing a life of second rate lounge acts introducing singers that no one has ever heard of, even with the gig on the television show. Kelly is against the deal, realizing he will be a “slave” to the agent for the next seven years. Jerry, who can’t see the big picture, jumps at the deal and he is willing do anything for success no matter how repugnant. Amid a flurry of brutal words, the two friends split.

The second act is three years later, and it takes place in the Green Room of the Buddy King Show. All of the characters are in the room for a big night since this is a top rated interview show with a major pop star on the program. Jackie, the old time comedian, and Jerry, the new Jerry Lewis type comedian, will both be on the program. It is a big and maybe a crowning moment in both of their lives. Tom Kelly has become an assistant to Buddy and Sheldon is an assistant director, there to keep the stars happy in the Green Room before they go before the camera. All is not well in this room since there is a problem about two comics on the same bill. One has to go, and he will lose his chance to be seen by a million plus audience. The ending is a kicker.

Only Kidding's small cast is superb and the timing among all five males is top drawer. Roland Scrivner is masterful as the old comic who hides his fear of going out of fashion behind his bristle and bluff. He also makes the biggest changeover to a nicer Bob Newhart type comic in the second act. Rusty Gilland plays the nervous and uptight Sheldon to a "T". This is Gilland's first professional appearance since he recently graduated from SFSU with a degree in Theater Arts. His acting is natural, and he should go far on the acting track.

Raffi Kondy has the Jerry Lewis mannerisms down pat. His character is like a maniacal, egotistical person full of himself; however, deep down inside, he has a terrible inferiority complex. He says in the first act “I’m poor, ugly and Jewish - it’s a f****** hat trick.” Raffi takes full advantage of the part and he is exceptional in the role. David Hern plays Tom the Irish comic to perfection. When asked by Sheldon in the second act how many ice cubes should go into a glass full of booze, Tom knows the exact number (he says he should know since ice is his birthstone). Anthony Finocchiaro plays the sleazy night club owner and agent to the hilt. His voice and acting are like Joe Pesci, and there were moments when I thought it was Pesci on the bandbox stage.

Direction by Lois Grandi (who was awarded the BATCC award last year for Whispers On the Wind) is intense yet there is a certain controlled strength about the characters. This is one of the best productions at Playhouse West this season.

Only Kidding played through Sunday, April 27th at Playhouse West, 1345 Locust Street, Walnut Creek. This is the last production at this small bandbox theater since the company moves to the Dean Lesher Center for Performing Arts in Walnut Creek with a production of Sandy Wilson’s musical The Boy Friend starting June 5. For tickets call 925-942-0300.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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