Say Goodnight Gracie revels in familiarity and age. It travels on creaky wheels of recognition rather than on rockets of revelation.
Say Goodnight Gracie by Rupert Holmes. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through July 7.
By Jim Kates.
The Peterborough Players have raised the curtain on their 80th season. Opening night was like a club meeting, many in the audience joining in a chorus of the usual instructions-in-case-of-fire and reminding artistic director Gus Kaikkonen in his introductory remarks to point out the emergency exits.
In 1933, the vaudeville comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen had been together for 10 years, married for seven, and were just getting going in the radio banter that would carry them through and into television until 1958, when Allen retired. After her death in 1964, Burns established a new career as a movie actor until his own death in 1996. The narrative of George Burns’s life is the subject of Rupert Holmes’s Say Goodnight Gracie, the opening production of this year’s Peterborough season.
Like the opening of the season itself, Say Goodnight Gracie revels in familiarity and age. It travels on creaky wheels of recognition rather than on rockets of revelation. In fact, if you’re not already aware of who and what Burns-and-Allen were in their time, if you’re not ready to crow with delight at photographs of Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor, you might have a hard time appreciating the unfolding story. And unfold the story does, page by page, from birth to death, an autobiographical audiobook delivered by Joel Rooks as Burns and Didi Conn as an offstage voice of Allen.
If you really are a devotee of Burns and Allen, or even just curious about their lives and art, modern technology offers you a variety of ways to enjoy their artistry or get to know them. Satellite radio re-broadcasts their long-running radio appearances on a regular basis. The internet enshrines and enables their film and television performances. From this point of view, there is something anachronistic and quixotic about mounting a production of an actor playing the role of Burns. If the experience is to be anything more than the theatrical equivalent of sitting around a bonfire singing old camp songs, he had better be damned good because we have the original to set right beside him. And the Players’ production (I guess this might be from the original Broadway run, too) does that very thing—playing audio and video clips of the real Burns and Allen woven into the texture of the staged re-imagination.
There are two choices the director and actor can make. They can decide not to try to duplicate Burns at all, or they can try to duplicate him as closely as possible, to try to create the illusion that, Woody-Allen-like, the figure has stepped out of the screen onto the stage. This is by far the riskier alternative, and it’s the choice made by Rooks, who has been touring with Say Goodnight Gracie for some time now before bringing it to Peterborough. He makes a pretty good job of it. He has caught most of Burns’s physical mannerisms, from the way the old hoofer held a cigar between his fingers to the way he ran his tongue around his gums to punctuate a punch line. What he misses—or, more accurately, what the audience misses most—is the timing, Burns’s laid-back delivery. He’s a little too quick, a tad too metronomic. At one point in the script, Burns says of Allen that “she never gave the same performance twice,” and I suspect that Rooks’s problem here is that he is giving the same performance over and over again.
Say Goodnight Gracie comes most alive when the original routines are presented, either by Rooks himself or in recording. For the rest, even the best actor can present him only as a guy on a stage reminiscing about his life, from Lower East Side hardscrabble beginnings through love and friendship and loss—cue the violins, even if only Jack Benny’s—through to Beverly Hills and an Oscar.
That’s enough for most of the audience. That’s what we want, familiarity, comfort, in the comedy and in the sentimentality. When Rooks as Burns tells the audience, “You’ve probably heard this before,” we don’t complain, we settle in. We know what do in case of fire and where the exits are.