It may be the slimmest possible excuse for a play, but “Bermuda Avenue Triangle” is a great reason to see three seasoned pros serve up the best shtick around. Onstage at the Tiffany Theater, Beatrice Arthur, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna display comic timing so fine it must have taken more than one lifetime to perfect. They deliver some kind of giddy laugh cure begun before the birth of vaudeville. Once these three get going, the term side-splitting begins to have very real and possibly medical connotations for many members of the audience, who are left helplessly howling in the aisles.
In the simplistic symmetrical universe of the play, penned by Taylor and her husband, Bologna, Tess (Arthur) and Fannie (Taylor) are two widows, Italian and Jewish, respectively, being dumped by their daughters in a retirement condo in Las Vegas. They are not happy about it. As the Italian daughter, the wonderful Caroline Aaron (who clearly should be playing the Jewish daughter) goes on and on about the virtues of the condo on lovely Bermuda Avenue. It has a simulated Polynesian garden, she cheerfully informs her severe-looking, gray-bunned mother. It has a neon rainbow waterfall. Arthur just nods her head slowly, a sour look in her eyes. Then comes the voice, low enough to level any enthusiasm: “I wouldn’t give it to a leper.”
Rita (Randee Heller) doesn’t fare much better with her mom, Fannie. Fannie likes to suffer bravely. This is a woman who sums up her permanent martyr status quickly, by explaining that she was born in a potato field in Poland where her mother was plowing by hand because the ox was sick. The high point of her marriage was dining at La Guardia Airport.
She’s shvitzing from the mink coat she refuses to take off, and her makeup is all over her face. Her ankles are bandaged. Her hair is a mess. She looks around at all the rattan furniture. Her lips trembling, she peeps out in a little girl voice, “It’s very nice. What’s not to like? I always wanted to live in the Tiki Tiki house.”
Before too long, these bitter pills will shed their granny clothes in favor of outfits from Les Trashy Chic, which are, well, unbelievable. The catalyst: a smooth-talking Don Juan named Johnny (Bologna), the Romeo of the retirement community. He easily seduces them both. With each woman afraid to tell the other in case her friend should feel lonely, Johnny’s well-being is secured. This is the triangle, built on predictable jokes both visual and verbal. But, as played, even the most homey and sitcom-like of the jokes are delicious, such as when the women first unpack their bags, with Tess bringing out the oversize statues of Jesus and Mary, and Fannie unpacking a hideous orange and brown afghan. Personally, I would pay good money just to see Renee Taylor hold one of her priceless expressions for a seeming eternity, waiting for the laughs to die down so that the next line can be heard.
As the Jewish daughter, Heller is out of her depth with this cast. But as a rabbi and cheerleader for the senior citizen condo, Manny Kleinmuntz is quite funny as a dim straight man to the women’s insanity. His uncomprehending expression is perfect as Taylor reassures him after a possible faux pas: “Oh, that’s OK, rabbi. You were only doing your duty as a religious fanatic.”
Taylor and Bologna (they also wrote “Lovers and Other Strangers” and “It Had to be You”) understand how to string jokes together as a showcase for their talents. But “Bermuda Avenue Triangle” is a play that would be unbearable with lesser clowns. Director Caitlin Adams (who recently stepped in when Charles Nelson Reilly dropped out) paces the jokes and gives her cast room to work.
As a play geared toward senior citizenry, the emotional climax involves a parent telling a child to get off her back (the other way around is customary). There is a predictable message about the power of love. But the real message of the play is in its combustible laughter, a message with no words, only joyous sound.
* “Bermuda Avenue Triangle,” Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. $32-$37.50. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.