In the play “Say Goodnight Gracie”, the character of George Burns explains why his 36-year-old partner and wife was so funny. Her explanation is that Gracie Allen was an actress, not a comedian trying to get jokes.
This also explains why the production of “Say Goodnight Gracie” works so well at the Curtain Call Theater in Latham. One-man show star Phil Rice isn’t looking to be a comedian or to emulate George Burns.
This choice, made by Rice and directors Carol Max and Steve Fletcher, makes it a work that every member of the audience can relate to. Instead of a play about famous people, it’s essentially a grateful love letter from a man who loves his wife and his job.
Rice captures George Burns’ sincerity so much that the play doesn’t always feel like it’s being presented in the first person. We often get the impression that an admirer is telling us the story of George Burns and Gracie Allen. For a story of gratitude, that’s a good thing.
Of course, the play is a biography. A rather unusual biography. Rarely will you find a biography in which the subject takes great care to emphasize their own limited skills. Rice is able to cross a delicate line between showing Burns’ pride in her success and that of Gracie, but seems self-effacing in doing so.
When asked what it takes to be successful in show business, Burns replies, “You have to have talent first. Then you have to marry her like I did. It’s also an example of the false modesty running through the room using a joke to make Burns a character you can relate to.
Indeed, Gracie Allen was at the heart of their act. They wouldn’t have been a success without the impressive honesty with which the actress portrayed her giddy character.
But as the play shows, Burns wrote all the material and was a master at making people laugh in the style he calls “illogical logic.”
For example, when in one of the clips, Gracie comes out from under the bed with a book in her hand, she explains that she was told to read Dr. Jekyll and go into hiding.
“Say Goodnight Gracie” traces the course of Burns’ life, from his impoverished youth to his mediocre career in vaudeville. He explains that once he teamed up with Allen, they had phenomenal success in vaudeville, radio, television and film.
The play’s only major flaw begins with the overused device that forces George Burns, who lived to be 100, to audition for God to enter Heaven.
This frail start forces Rice to initially offer a lot of exhibitions that could be boring. Or worse.
In the wrong hands, it could be fatally sentimental. Fortunately, Rice delivers the facts of their life and career in such a conversational way that it becomes an enjoyable storytelling, and the sentimentality that survives is sweet rather than sickening.
Although Burns insists he was a poor stand-up comic, there’s no denying his superb sense of comedic timing. Rice has the same quality, as he makes the most of the many jokes and funny stories in the play. His jokes and his friendship with Jack Benny are especially funny.
Video clips show the team in action throughout the presentation, giving us a better understanding of why they have been so successful. They’re 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 is played against an impressive backdrop dominated by a large screen. Frank Oliva’s design is greatly helped by the wonderful lighting of Paul M. Radassao, as it becomes an intimate and functional space that changes with the mood of the moment.
“Say Goodnight Gracie” is a feel-good play about a hit comedy crew. But the play is animated by our affection for the couple.
They were in love with show business, but more in love with each other. Rice’s honest and heartfelt portrayal makes every element of their love story romantic.
“Say Goodnight Gracie” continues at the Curtain Call Theater in Latham until October 17th. For ticket and schedule information, visit Curtaincalltheater.com or call 518-877-7529. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and masks must be worn at all times in the theater.
Bob Goepfert is theater critic for the Troy Record.
The opinions expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of that station or its management.