Rita Rudner's ‘Tickled Pink' tickles funny bone in Laguna
New Rita Rudner play debuts in O.C.
"Tickled Pink," a new play written by comedian Rita Rudner and her husband Martin Bergman, is a lot like her standup comedy. That's both a good and a bad thing.
In its world premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, a rambling, big-cast production directed by Bergman got plenty of laughs for its wry one-liners but suffered from an absence of outside editorial wisdom – someone who could turn its many short, punch-line oriented scenes into a smoother and more focused narrative.
There's a touching central story in "Tickled Pink," based on Rudner's 2002 novel of the same name that contains big chunks of autobiography. It's about an unlikely but strong friendship between two young women and how that bond is sorely tested by their intersecting, up-and-down careers. When "Tickled Pink" focuses on the evolving relationship between Mindy Solomon (Emma Fassler), a dancer-turned-comedian, and Ursula Duran (Annie Abrams), a willowy dancer Mindy meets when she first moves to New York, the show gains confidence and energy.
But there are many tangents and a thicket of minor characters that clutter up the storytelling. With almost 40 scenes and 13 actors playing multiple roles, "Tickled Pink" is the theatrical equivalent of a rose bush that needs a thorough pruning.
"Tickled Pink" is essentially a "girl makes good" tale. Teenage Mindy leaves her Miami home and her newly remarried dad to pursue a dancing career on Broadway. Staying at the Barbizon, New York's fabled hotel for women, she meets and befriends Ursula, a tall, blond model from the Midwest who's a paragon of sweetness.
It's a chalk-and-cheese relationship, but the two stay friends as their lives take unexpected turns.
Mindy succeeds as a hoofer, but her career is cut short by an injury. She finds herself in a comedy club and, on a whim, tries out some material one night. To her surprise, she makes people laugh. A second calling is born.
Ursula, meanwhile, conquers the modeling world with ease and marries a handsome actor, Tommy (Nick Massouh), who turns out to be – surprise – a two-timing cad.
The Mindy-Ursula friendship gets derailed by that old showbiz villain, Hollywood.
A writer named Mitch (Michael Kirby) likes Mindy's comedy act and wants to develop a sitcom around it. ABC loves it, but then disaster strikes. Mindy, though assured by Mitch that she'll land the title role (it's based on her talents and persona, after all), loses out to – you're way ahead of me – Ursula, who has forsaken modeling for an acting career. In a rage, Mindy ends her friendship with Ursula and her budding romance with Mitch.
The latter and better half of "Tickled Pink" concerns the damage caused by that turn of events and the Mindy-Ursula relationship's long rode back to a new normal. That's more than enough to build a great story on, but, as mentioned, the subplots and minor characters at times pull Rudner and Bergman off course.
Of course, a lot of those tangents are funny and enjoyable. We get to see Fassler, a charming and understated actor, do some of Rudner's best jokes as a standup comedian. She contrasts nicely with Abrams, who makes Ursula's sweetness and goodness of heart seem like unshakeable traits, even when she's relentlessly climbing Hollywood's ladder.
The supporting cast is full of talented performers, some of whom are frustratingly underused.
Greg Bryan plays a morose and twisted comic obsessed with death. Massouh is the picture of unctuous charm as Tommy, Ursula's heel of a husband. As Penelope, a failed comedian and talented writer, Betsy Reisz captures the character's sardonic, withering wit. Floyd Van Buskirk gets some well-deserved laughs as Mindy's sad-sack dad, a man with a hilariously minimalist delivery.
Rudner plays three characters, two of them wickedly funny. I won't spoil it for you by describing them – they're best enjoyed without any foreknowledge.
The look of "Tickled Pink," like its script, is unfinished. Scenic and lighting designer D. Martyn Bookwalter uses sliding panels and fuzzy projected images to denote changes of scene, and some work better than others. The overall effect is sketchy and a bit clunky, with some slow transitions.
Dwight Richard Odle has fun with period costumes, especially the ridiculous excess of the late 1970s and early '80s. Sound designer Corinne Carrillo effectively uses snatches of familiar pop music to signal what era we're in as the years fly by.
It's heartening to see entertainers of Rudner and Bergman's stature take an interest in the playhouse (the couple lives in nearby Monarch Beach when she's not doing her popular Las Vegas show). They clearly have an appreciative audience in Laguna, and I'm assuming the throw weight of their participation was the reason we're seeing more performers on the playhouse stage than for any production I can recall.
Despite its imperfections, I'm hoping "Tickled Pink" represents the start of an ongoing relationship between the Rudner/Bergman team and the playhouse. The theater's pattern of collaborating with established artists seems like a prudent path to follow as it emerges from a rough period and finds new ways to attract audiences.
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