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The Fame of the the Dame

Can a rude, clueless, provincial Australian woman who's actually a man conquer Broadway and win a place in the American cultural pantheon? Barry Humphries's Dame Edna is on the verge.

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The curtain was still falling on Barry Humphries after a matinee preview performance, and already there was a producer walking down the aisle.

"Ummm, Barry?" the producer said backstage. "Where's Barry?" It was Leonard Soloway, a man of nail-biting rectitude and solid judgment, who gave us The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Shadow Box and has now brought Barry Humphries -- in the form of his character Dame Edna Everage -- to Broadway for Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, which opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews last month at the Booth Theatre.

Humphries emerged in the wings, still more or less as Edna, in the famous purple wig and butterfly glasses and a red sequined Pavlova of a dress with a slit all the way up the back. He stepped out of ruby pumps into a pair of Timberland moccasins while two dancers unzipped his dress and put him in a bathrobe.

"Yes?" Humphries said.

"Great show, Barry," Soloway said. "But do you know what?"

Do you know what? To a member of the talent class, there is perhaps nothing more discouraging to hear from a producer than those four little words. "Do you know what?" is usually followed by some kind of suggestion to . . . change a few things, or a less than mild rejection, or maybe "I fought for you, but . . ."

Humphries knows this as well as anyone. Famous though he is in his native Australia, and in England, where Dame Edna has been a beloved chat-show host, appeared in three movies, and had a number of TV specials and a game show, he has yet to hit anything near those heights on American shores. When Edna performed Housewife! Superstar! Off Broadway in 1977, it lasted only four weeks (though Andy Warhol, writing in The Village Voice, gave it a rave). A Dame Edna talk show aired on Fox in 1992 and '93 before a network executive called Humphries up and asked him if he knew what, but the show didn't have much of a future.

" 'Do you know what?' from a producer is sort of like saying, you know, 'Why were you ever born?' " Humphries says later. "It means 'We've been wondering here why you were ever born. Having been born, why did you ever come to the United States and think this crap was ever going to be funny?' One day on the set there were different people from the network than the day before, some kid with a baseball cap on backward, someone who had probably taken a weekend course in television," Humphries says. "The day of transmission, I was told it would be 'stronger' if we cut the show to half an hour and the pauses were removed. And the jokes too. Also, the phrase I came to dread was 'We're very excited about the show.' As soon as I knew I was generating excitement, I knew there was trouble."

What Soloway and his co-producer, Chase Mishkin, objected to was an arrhythmic, situationist bit during the show in which Dame Edna had called upon two unsuspecting members of the audience and invited them to eat a meal onstage while she went about her stand-up routine. It was awkward, sure, but that was the point -- nobody in the house knew what to make of it, an Andy Kaufman stunt. "I don't think it works," Soloway said. "It's distracting," Mishkin said. "I want to watch you, Barry. I don't want to watch people eating."

In his dressing room, Humphries disrobed. He is 65, broad-shouldered, and tan like a Miami retiree, and there was about him a journeyman, son-of-the-circus poignancy in front of his mirror, still in panty hose and wig, wiping off layers of TV stick and pancake that would be reapplied for the evening performance. "Isn't it funny?" he said to Cleon Byerly, a wardrobe assistant. "I've just met my producer Chase Mishkin, and she looks an awful lot like this." He pointed to his reflection. "I mean, her hair is just like Edna's."

"If they didn't like the eating bit, that's their problem. It's important to make the audience uncomfortable."

"Oh, yeah," Byerly said. "All the way. It's a very 1950s do."

"If they didn't like the eating bit, that's their problem," Humphries said wearily. It was time for a lie-down on his daybed. "They expressed their misgivings. But I'll keep trying it. It's important to make the audience uncomfortable."

Dame Edna: the Royal Tour is a hybrid stand-up comedy-musical revue, but its funniest moments occur during Edna's extended back-and-forths with the theatergoers. This is partly because Edna appears to have no idea that what she's saying is insulting. "I love that fabric," Dame Edna told an overweight woman a few weeks ago at a promotional event outside the Booth Theater. "You were lucky to find so much of it." When a woman in the front row said she had come in from Connecticut, Edna clasped her hands and said, "Oh, do you live in the beautiful country? On a dirt road? And you put your makeup on in the car, didn't you?" The audience laughed. "I mean that in a caring and observant way," Edna said.

Humphries is invariably gracious when not in character, but he must possess a distinct streak of sadism, which comes to the fore when he dons his wig; Edna likes nothing better than to prey on the weak. One morning recently, while posing for publicity photos at a studio in Chelsea, Edna sat for an interview with AP radio and set about disorienting the reporter by taking control of the process. "I love your fiery hair, fiery hair with flecks of gold in it," she told her interrogator, who was prim and thirtyish, perhaps a little inexperienced, indeed had red hair, and wore a grown-up, flared-trouser pantsuit. "I, of course, have mauve hair."

Edna pronounces mauve to rhyme with trove, and sometimes tells a story of her adolescence: "When my secondary sexual characteristics began to appear, a little mauve mist began . . . how can I put it? Near my front bottie," she'll say (bottie is an Australian term for bottom; Edna refers to the vagina as a "front bottom"). "I was heartbroken. And I went and bought some dye, and I dyed my secondary sexual characteristics a mousy brown."


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