Laurel and Hardy. Amos and Andy. Abbott and Costello. Martin and Lewis. These four famous comedy duos entertained 20th century audiences on the vaudeville stage, the silver screen, radio and, eventually, television—one as straight man, the other as his comedic foil. Much of their humor came from physical comedy: frenetic chases, pratfalls, silly voices and walks.
But the most charming of the duos was George Burns and Gracie Allen, a husband and wife team who succeeded in all the entertainment media with comedy based on nothing more than simple conversation. He was the sophisticated man-about-town; she, the ditz. All George had to do was to ask Gracie about her brother, and a 20-minute monologue as illogical as it was funny would ensue.
Playwright Rupert Holmes has traced their fascinating lives in Say Goodnight, Gracie, now onstage at the Bickford Theatre in the Morris Museum where it runs through February 16. For an engrossing 90 minutes, Joel Rooks as George Burns recounts his humble beginnings on New York's Lower East Side, his show biz career that floundered until he met and married Gracie, and their long-term personal and professional relationship. He is aided by a series of photographs and videos projected on a screen behind him and the voice of Didi Cohn as Gracie in several "conversations" he has with his late wife.
This one-man show uses a series of props assembled by Ric McAllister to signify various venues and time periods in Burns' long life (he died at the age of 100); Roman Klima's lighting and Kevin Lacy's sound design enhance the effect. We meet his friends, his partners, his best friend Jack Benny as he traces the rich (and quirky) growth of vaudeville, radio and television as entertainment media. John Tillinger directs the play so that Rook appears to be conversing with the audience in a natural and convincing fashion, while maintaining the patter rhythm that marked Burns' delivery. And Rook employs hand gestures and a walk recognizable as Burns'.
George in chair 2Without giving away too much of the plot, several vignettes stand out. Burns' description of life with 11 siblings is as hilarious as is his account of the lengths he went to support his large family at the age of seven when his father died suddenly. He gained his trademark cigar at the age of 14, and set on a singing and dancing career, teamed up with a variety of interchangeable and undistinguishable partners, until at the age of 30 he met the "dizziest girl in the world," 17-year-old Irish girl, Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen, in 1922. Realizing that he wasn't really the funny one, Burns used Gracie's innocent, high-pitched voice and "illogical logic" to craft a comedic duo that performed together for 36 years, until Gracie had had enough and retired.
But George Burns (called "Nattie") did not retire and went on to a television and film career, appearing on the Jack Benny show and in such movies as "The Sunshine Boys" for which he won an Oscar at the age of 80 and three "Oh, God!" films with John Denver.
Audiences of a certain age would remember listening to George Burns and Gracie Allen on the radio and later on television. Younger theatergoers might recall the films he made late in life. But it really doesn't matter whether you are familiar with the duo or not. Rupert Holmes and Joel Rook have painted a dramatic picture of a long and loving relationship filled with mutual respect and professionalism. Gracie might not have know she was funny, but George certainly did, and he worked mighty hard to convey her zany scatterbrained demeanor in a loving way. She was so beloved that when ran for the Presidency on the Surprise Ticket in 1940, she actually garnered 42,000 votes! The duo were commemorated on a postage stamp in 2009.
Say Goodnight, Gracie (their signature sign-off phrase) may be a one-man show, but thanks to Rupert Holmes and Joel Rook, Gracie Allen is present through George's reminiscences, through the magic of technology, and conveys the love she engendered across all social levels. The play is a real tribute to a great woman—and her straight man.
Reviewed by Ruth Ross (www.njartsmaven.com)
Say Goodnight, Gracie will be performed at the Bickford Theatre in the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, through February 16. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706 or visit www.morrismuseum.org.
Note: George Burns and Gracie Allen started their partnership in Newark, New Jersey.