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STAGE REVIEW : Banks: High-Yield Laughs

Will success spoil Steven Banks?

The riotously funny Banks, master procrastinator and the ultimate cocooner, has returned to town with his “Steven Banks’ Home Entertainment Center” after a year of kudos in San Francisco that climaxed with the taping of his own Showtime special. This time, he’s at the Pasadena Playhouse Balcony Theatre.

For the uninitiated, Steven Banks plays Steven Banks, a 33-year-old who has extended his adolescence to the breaking point. Coming home from his boring job, Steven retreats into his private lair and indulges in his boyish fantasies--most of which focus on being a rock ‘n’ roll star.

But the outside world keeps intruding on his daydreams. There’s the speech he has to write for his boss within the next half hour; the girlfriend who keeps calling to remind him of their one-month anniversary and to announce her intention to move into his place--tomorrow; the landlord who calls to threaten eviction if as much as one rim shot is heard from Steven’s drum set.

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The initial run of this show, at the Chamber Theatre in 1986, generated responses that were equally balanced between delight at someone who was so in touch with his own irrepressible imagination and pity that this guy was never going to grow up.

He had no prospects for making his show-biz dreams come true. To paraphrase one of the few songs that Steven probably wouldn’t sing to himself, what good was sitting alone in his room if he never actually came to the cabaret?

Well, in this version (which reportedly was born in the period between that first engagement and a briefer gig at Theatre III on Santa Monica Boulevard), Banks the writer offers Steven the character hope that he might make it to that cabaret after all.

A high school acquaintance, now a minor-league rock star, calls Steven, seeking the phone number of another mutual friend who was a drummer. It seems the drummer in this guy’s band just quit, and . . . Steven fills in the blanks.

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On paper, the more upbeat ending tilts the balance of the show in favor of Steven’s daydreams, in favor of goofing off, as opposed to buckling down and facing “reality,” whatever that means. Cynics may complain that this is escapist pandering.

In the theater, however, the newer ending works like wildfire. The audience is thrilled by the notion that Steven might actually make a buck from his fantasies. He has enlisted us on his side to the extent that earlier in the show, when he flips pencils off his table, aiming at his kitchen window, members of the audience root for his success as if he were competing in the Olympics.

Steven can add another fantasy figure to his collection of role models: Rocky.

Besides, those cynics who miss the more melancholy ending of the earlier version can rest assured that Steven will surely find a way to sabotage his now-hopeful finale. It’s hard to believe that Steven can muster the concentration and discipline necessary to follow through on his big opportunity.

Steven has devised an endless number of ways to distract himself from the task at hand. With the assistance of director Tom McLoughlin, Banks manages the paradoxical trick of personifying the word dilatory and yet doing it with split-second timing.

He’s a gifted clown and impersonator, but he’s also a verbal wit. One song mordantly lampoons the unhappy fates of his musical heroes. Steven also sings the blues--about his family’s back-yard barbecues. Furthermore, he plays ukulele, guitar, banjo and a drum solo that really does sound as if it might get him a job.

Of course, with his Showtime special, Banks is doing well for himself. Perhaps this is why he feels free to champion his own daydreams and scoff at the workaday world. (Showtime viewers, however, reportedly won’t see the complete “Home Entertainment Center” on the tube; not all of the necessary legal clearances could be arranged.)

One wonders if Banks has more acts up his sleeve--something to do after everyone has seen “Home Entertainment Center.” But hold that thought for now--Banks will entertain a lot of people before that day arrives.

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At 39 S. El Molino Ave., Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., through March 26. Tickets: $22; (818) 756-PLAY.


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