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STAGE REVIEW : Sahl Still Swiping at the Peculiarities of Politics

Times Theater Critic

Mort Sahl will be in residence at the Westwood Playhouse for the next few Mondays and Tuesdays, discussing the upcoming presidential election. He recommends we vote No.

Sahl on Michael Dukakis: “It’s hard to believe that charisma is a Greek word.”

Sahl on George Bush: “Washington couldn’t tell a lie; Nixon couldn’t tell the truth; Bush can’t tell the difference.”

As usual, Sahl took care to offend everybody Monday night without really sticking it to anybody. There was a time in the 1960s when he got so involved with the issues, especially the issue of who killed J.F.K., that he almost lost his perspective as an observer. Now he has gone back to being amused.

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Unbelievable is his favorite word. He can remember when we voted for a presidential candidate on the strength of what he promised to do once in office. Now we vote for a guy on the strength of what he promises never to do . . . trusting that he will. To get Red China recognized, you elect Richard Nixon. Unbelievable.

He still comes out wearing a sweater and carrying a folded-up newspaper, which he has obviously read. Remarking on the vice presidential debate, he classily avoids commenting on “You’re no Jack Kennedy, senator.” What interests him is Sen. Dan Quayle’s opinion that we ought to be flattered that so many foreign interests are buying us up. Unbelievable.

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, Sahl’s natural adversaries would seem to be on the right wing. But he has developed a perverse fondness for Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig. They are fun guys, he tells us, once you get to know them personally.

Compare the Hollywood liberal crowd like Norman Lear and Paul Newman, with their eternal wine-and-cheese parties for candidates that they know aren’t going to win. No-fun guys.

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Where is Sahl personally? He mentions a couple of times that he has been perceived as a liberal. Whether the perception is wrong or right, he doesn’t say.

Maybe he should say. Sahl gave an astute, funny performance Monday night. One went to the Westwood wondering whether there was anything humorous to be said about the present campaign--he proved that there was plenty to be said.

But it wasn’t a bracing performance, the kind that sends you home with a clearer sense that the foxes are in the chicken coop. An occasional throw-away line suggests that Sahl does see to the bottom of an issue, but doesn’t care to follow it to the bottom. That would be cranky and “didactic,” which he has been told is one of his faults.

So Sahl plays the agnostic, scoring off both sides, sharply and specifically, but side-stepping the basic question of what is wrong with the structure. As a political satirist, he’s a dance-away lover, a kind of thinking man’s Bob Hope.

There’s also a parallel to Hope when Sahl tells us about hanging out with people in power--what Al Haig happened to say over a drink at the Waldorf Towers; Ron Reagan’s funny crack to a Japanese businessman after the GOP convention.

Sahl presents himself in the guise of a comic counterspy here: our mole in the White House, gathering information. What would we think of Ralph Nader’s information, though, if he became a insider at General Motors? Parnell’s great remark comes to mind more than once in this performance: “The greatest hindrance to Irish independence is the English dinner napkin.”

Monday night’s show--clearly a warm-up for the ones to come--also contained quite a lot of stuff about Sahl’s adventures as a Hollywood writer. There’s a whole show in that, but not this month.

Plays at 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays. Closes Nov. 1. Tickets $17.50. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. (213) 208-5454 or (213) 410-1062.

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