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The Recycle Bin

Recalling 36 years together onstage and off, Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna find plenty of ham; Gerard Alessandrini unearths a trove of laughs in Mr. President.

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Watching Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna in If You Ever Leave Me, I'm Going With You! made me appreciate the Lunts and the Spewacks all the more. The former acted in plays they did not write; the latter wrote plays they did not act in. The new show by Taylor and Bologna is about their 36-year marriage and their 36-year writing and acting career -- which are roughly the same thing. The pair also directed, effectively sealing off the enterprise from outside interference. Sitting through this intermissionless love fest is like going down in a bathysphere to the bottom of a pond.

Navel-gazing for two is still navel-gazing. Here, on stage and screen, are extracts from their plays, movies, and TV appearances, glued together with a little new goo. Everything congeals, and after a few mildly funny minutes I had enough of Bollor and Taygna. When they are not writing about themselves, they write about their families, which widens their horizon by several inches. To be sure, Taylor is a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and Bologna an Italian Catholic from Brooklyn, and their marriage was not supposed to last. But it did. Even so, packing every iota of it into one self-congratulatory package makes 100 minutes feel like 36 hours. Compared with If You Ever Leave Me, Sartre's No Exit goes by like a ride in the Tunnel of Love.

At one point, Joe and Renée were telling old jokes. They were old jokes even when they appeared in an old play of theirs, which made them doubly old. Indeed, the whole piece is wall-to-wall old jokes, which is why the audience was laughing. For the young, these quaint old jokes seemed weirdly new; for the old folks, revisiting the jokes of their youth was a blissful nostalgia trip.

Mr. President comes from Gerard Alessandrini, the fellow who gives us Forbidden Broadway, with which it alternates, and than which I find it much funnier. Funnier because it is not obsolescing showbiz satire but political satire, which is after bigger game that, in the Clinton-Bush era, needs every poke it can get. It is a reworking of the not-so-hot 1962 Irving Berlin musical of the same name, upended, updated, and upgraded.

George Shrub Jr. is president, backed up by wife Flora, mother Barbara, and brother Jet, though the latter, like daughters Ginna and Tonyic, can be a drag. Barbara, by the way, is played, hilariously, by Stuart Zagnit in drag. George's chief henchmen are Coalhouse Power and Dick Brainy; his chief pests are Will and Chillary Ramrod Fenton, and Al Bore. The former pair are played handsomely by Eric Jordan Young and, again, Zagnit. Except for George, done well enough by Clif Thorn, the many other parts are parceled out among five actors; at the piano Jono Mainelli not only accompanies well but also looks remarkably like Berlin.

Alessandrini has taken Berlin numbers from Mr. President and elsewhere, nudging or tweaking some of the lyrics, completely rewriting others. Fitting them into what is perhaps less a musical than a revue allows him to cover and scorch greater ground, reaching as far back as the Kennedys and Nixon. He is lucky to have the wonderful impressionist Michael West, who can take off just about anyone superbly -- in one number, George and Will simultaneously. And what a charmer is the perky Amanda Naughton! The one weak link is Whitney Allen, an acceptable Elizabeth Dolt and a passably butch Eleanor Roosevelt, but a washout as Chillary.

Fine sets by Bryan Johnson, costumes by Alvin Colt, and arrangements by Paul Katz bolster the savvy direction by Alessandrini and John Znidarsic. Though the evening occasionally lapses into the sophomoric, it more often rises to sophisticated hilarity -- or is it chillarity?

If You Ever Leave Me, I'm Going With You!
Written, directed, and performed by Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna.

Mr. President
Adaptation of the Berlin-Lindsay-Crouse musical (closed).
See Theater listings for details.


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