Theater Reviews

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Geffen Playhouse, Westwood
Through March 30

A trip into the adventurous psyche of Joan Rivers can feel like a trip down memory lane on the Titanic -- with one important difference: Rivers is a survivor, and nearly everything she's experienced or learned is on the tip of her tongue just waiting to be spoken. In her very personal new show, "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress," she answers her own favorite question -- Can we talk? -- by speaking mostly from the heart.

Not to worry, the snarky wit and scorching tongue are still around for decoration. If anything, this might be the funniest show Rivers has ever put together. But it's also the most searching and revealing. Rivers takes us into areas she's only skimmed before, and she does it with the skill and audacity we've come to expect of her.

The setup is that Rivers is about to host another red-carpet awards show, daughter Melissa has been given the star dressing room, and Joan's complimentary cheese plate (Laughing Cow instead of Camembert or Brie) is less than stellar -- a sure sign, she notes, that trouble is brewing. To add to her problems, Rivers is stuck with two new, less-than-perfect assistants, Kenny (Adam Kulbersh) and Svetlana (Emily Kosloski), the latter a Russian with a heavy accent. This allows Rivers to give Svetlana amusing advice on how to make it in showbiz, especially if you're a woman ("One hair from a pussy can pull a freight train."). When Kenny ruins her dressing choices, that becomes a problem too.

All of this becomes a way for Rivers to address the audience directly from time to time and begin to rummage through her life. After five decades in show business, the topics fly by -- some familiar, some not. The famous breakup with Johnny Carson is there, her husband's suicide, various feuds and firings, several backstabs, sidesteps and full frontal calamities. You may think you've heard it all before, but you'd be wrong. Personal details are added to give a more complete picture of what we thought we knew.

Other subjects arise: aging, cosmetic surgery, sex over 60, fake orgasms, the connection between 36-hour erections and the recent Malibu fire. Rivers even gives us a sample of her first comedy routine, complete with an ancient dieting joke about Mamie Eisenhower, Tab Hunter and Shelley Winters.

Stories and anecdotes are priceless: how Joan got the queen of England to laugh (sort of), how to pronounce "Lana Turner" (lots of tongue), how to kiss asses in showbiz (many ways). How legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard ruined her film directorial bow is put on the record. This wound and other slights are vividly remembered.

After finally being fired by an obnoxious new network executive (Tara Joyce) because she no longer fits the age demographic, Rivers manages to turn matters around one more time. A theme emerges through the laughter and pain: Her life is far from over. "I haven't peaked yet," Rivers tells us with conviction. A line from a warm family story she's told pops up again: "Keep your fork," meaning the best (dessert) is yet to be.

Forget the Titanic. If the show is any indication, Rivers is plowing straight ahead, damn the torpedoes and the icebergs. To tell the real truth, she loves performing, and she loves the challenge. Bart DeLorenzo directs.

JOAN RIVERS: A WORK IN PROGRESS BY A LIFE IN PROGRESS
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse
Credits:
Playwrights: Joan Rivers and Douglas Bernstein & Denis Markell
Director: Bart DeLorenzo
Set designer: Tom Buderwitz
Lighting designer: Rand Ryan
Costume designer: Christina Haatainen Jones
Sound designer/composer: John Ballinger
Projection designer: Austin Switser
Cast:
Herself: Joan Rivers
Kenny: Adam Kulbersh
Svetlana: Emily Kosloski
Ms. Goodheart: Tara Joyce
On camera: Herself: Melissa Rivers
Chase: Dorie Barton
Blake: Leo Marks
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