Laugh Whore Written by Mario Cantone. Directed by Joe Mantello. Original music by Jerry Dixon. Additional music by Mario Cantone & Harold Lubin. Original lyrics by Mario Cantone, Jerry Dixon & Harold Lubin. Set design by Robert Brill. Sound design by Tony Meola. Lighting design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer.
You can't be blamed if you've always found Mario Cantone an acquired taste, but if he hasn't been to your liking in the past, you might want to sample him again now. His solo show, Laugh Whore, which just opened at the Cort, is an impressive star turn from the irrepressible comedian, and might well be capable of winning over even the wariest skeptic.
The important thing to remember is that with Cantone, what you see is what you get. If you sat through his recent Broadway performances in The Violet Hour or Assassins, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. Cantone can't easily be said to be versatile; his over-the-moon brashness and whiny bray of a voice are always present, just waiting to be unleashed in varying levels of intensity and volume.
But if that persona - which he's spent over a decade honing onstage, in comedy clubs, and on television shows like Sex and the City - can all too easily seem incongruous in multi-person shows, in a solo vehicle it feels perfectly sized. From the moment Cantone arrives onstage, dressed all in black and belting out a comically self-indulgent heart-render called "This Is My Life," he owns the Cort, even going so far as to prove it by violently toppling an onstage stool and, one can't help but feel, the very walls of theater.
Yes, it's a spoof, but less of one than it might first appear: Cantone spends the next two hours or so staking his claim to ownership of just that type of song, and makes a mighty convincing case. It could be said that that's one of the points of solo shows, and that anyone else in Cantone's position might be able to do the same thing. But his unique blend of blustery, gale-force comedic insanity and a slew of dead-on celebrity impressions is going to be hard for anyone to match, at least in terms of sheer volcanic vivacity.
Most of those impressions - of such singular personalities as Estelle Parsons, Faye Dunaway, Julia Child, Cher, Tina Turner, and Katharine Hepburn - are primarily warm-ups for his two lengthy takes on Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland, which serve as major set pieces in each of the show's two acts. Cantone dispatches these with superb facility and his own quirky brand of affection, as if simply pulling them from his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. (As if to demonstrate this, he even requests audience suggestions for celebrity women to plug into a very funny sequence about Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. At the performance I attended, he handled each of these suggestions as expertly as those he prepared.)
Cantone can also turn reflective, as in his second-act recounting of his Italian-American upbringing and family. He even demonstrates a keen sense of dramatic build, moving slowly from a general discussion of his relatives' foibles through an examination of the secrets and lies that prevented him from ever really knowing either of his parents. It's laced liberally with comedy, of course - and soon gives way to a fall-out-of-your-chair sequence recounting his working with a particularly foul-mouthed deaf child - but it's a nice, and unexpected, change of pace.
Exactly how much shaping is the result of input from director Joe Mantello is never clear; one suspects that his job consisted solely of getting out of Cantone's way, occasionally prodding him in this way or that. Regardless, the evening is smooth and lively, and is accented nicely by Robert Brill's Vegas-y light bulb setting (a staircase and sofa also appear for the second act) and the attractive lights by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer that even manage to work in a few wisecracks of their own.
Cantone collaborated on the show's songs with Jerry Dixon and Harold Lubin, and they're something of a mixed bag: The steamrolling "This Is My Life" is hilarious, the "Jim Morrison Christmas" medley is an inspired bit of theatrical psychedelics, and the tunes for the Liza Minnelli sequence and the second act opener (sung, with a feather boa, to a straight man from the audience) also come across well. More disappointing are the generic Judy Garland number "My Name Is Gumm" and the deflating finale ("A Laugh Whore Is Born"), which doesn't end the evening on a high note.
Luckily, such missteps are eminently forgivable given how well everything else works. You can quibble, if you like, about how some of the material (particularly in the first act) seems a bit dated, and that might be a turn-off if you're seeking some slightly fresher comic targets. But Cantone makes it all work brilliantly, and a little bit of familiarity should not dissuade you from seriously considering this superbly entertaining comic spectacle.