By Bob Goepfert
LATHAM, N.Y. – In the play, “Say Goodnight Gracie,” the character of George Burns explains why his partner and wife of 36 years was so funny.
His explanation is that Gracie Allen was an actress, not a comic trying to be funny.
This also explains why the production of “Say Goodnight Gracie” works so well at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham.
Phil Rice, the star of the one-man show, does not try to be a comic nor do an imitation of George Burns. This choice, made by Rice and directors Carol Max and Steve Fletcher makes it a work to which every member of the audience can relate.
Instead of a play about famous people it is, basically, a grateful love letter from a man who loves his wife and his job.
Rice so captures the sincerity of George Burns that the play doesn’t always feel it’s being offered in the first person. It often seems as if an admirer is telling us the story of George Burns and Gracie Allen. For a story about gratitude, that’s a good thing.
Of course, the play is a biography. A rather unusual biography. Seldom will you find a biography in which the subject takes great pains to point out his or her own limited skills. Rice is able to walk a delicious line between showing Burns’ pride at his and Gracie’s success, but seem self-effacing while doing it.
When asked what it takes to be a success in show business Burns replies, “First you have to have talent. Then you have to marry it like I did.” It’s also an example of the false modesty that runs throughout the play using a joke to make Burns a relatable figure.
Indeed, Gracie Allen was the heart of their act. They wouldn’t have been a success if it were not for the impressive honesty in which the actress portrayed her ditzy character.
But as the play points out, Burns wrote all the material and was a master of getting laughs with the style he calls “illogical logic.” For example, when in one of the clips Gracie comes from under the bed with a book in hand, she explains she was told to read Dr. Jekyll and hide.
“Say Goodnight Gracie” charts the course of Burns’ life from his impoverished youth through his mediocre career in vaudeville. It explains that once he partnered with Allen they had phenomenal success in vaudeville, radio, television and film.
The only major flaw in the play starts with the overused device having George Burns, who lived to be 100, have to audition to God to get into heaven.
This frail beginning forces Rice to initially offer a lot of exposition which could be boring. Or worse. In the wrong hands it could be fatally sentimental. Thankfully, Rice delivers the facts of their lives and careers in such a conversational manner it becomes enjoyable storytelling and the sentimentality that does survive is sweet rather than cloying.
Though Burns insists he was a poor standup comic, there is no denying his superb sense of comic timing. Rice has the same quality, as he makes the most of the play’s many jokes and funny stories. Special fun is his banter and friendship with Jack Benny.
Throughout the presentation video clips show the team in action, which adds to our understanding about why they were so successful. They are so satisfying that my bet is most of the audience will be on You Tube after the show looking for more Burns and Allen.
It’s played on an impressive set which is dominated by a large screen. Frank Oliva’s design is helped enormously by the wonderful lighting of Paul M. Radassao, as it becomes an intimate, functional space that alters with the mood of the moment.
“Say Goodnight Gracie” is a feel-good play about a successful comedy team. But the play is driven by our fondness for the couple. They were in love with show business, but more in love with each other. Rice’s honest and sincere portrayal makes romantic each element of their love story.
“Say Goodnight Gracie” continues at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham through Oct. 17. For tickets and schedule information go to curtaincalltheatre.com or call (518) 877-7529. Proof of vaccination is mandatory for entrance and face masks must be worn at all times in the theater.
By Bob Goepfert