Bea Arthur makes herself at home

Special to The Times

A liberal helping of personal panache is currently irradiating North Hollywood, where Bea Arthur will hold court through Sunday. In her 2002 Tony-nominated solo show, here called “Bea Arthur at the El Portal: Just Between Friends,” the award-winning actress offers an object lesson in finesse.

After a droll recorded announcement by Dame Edna, the silver-haired headliner glides onstage, barefoot in a glitter jacket, to roars from a packed house of devotees. Arthur lets the hubbub peak, then barks, “OK, Billy, you can come out now.” Her accompanist, composer Billy Goldenberg, slinks on, his hangdog demeanor suggesting Howard Morris crossed with Oscar Levant.

Insinuating herself into an armchair, Arthur coos, “I’d like to talk to you about lamb.” She then launches into a hilarious recipe recitation that segues into the Arlen/Gershwin/Harburg rarity “Fun to Be Fooled,” done in agreeably dusky Sprechstimme. Immortal catchphrases from “Maude” and “The Golden Girls” generate howls from an audience that hangs on her every deadpan word, no matter how blue. Noting her two decades as a sitcom fixture, Arthur crows, “Tonight, I am out of the box!”


Under Mark Waldrop’s direction, Arthur’s approach is vintage Village Vanguard, combining the assurance of a born diseuse with a vitality that belies her octogenarian status. She delivers songs, ranging from A. LeClerq’s ribald “What Can You Get a Nudist for Her Birthday?” to Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s haunting “It Never Was You,” with a command of gesture and phrasing that wouldn’t shame Mabel Mercer, one of several legends she acknowledges.

Those include Lotte Lenya, with whom Arthur appeared in the legendary off-Broadway production of “The Threepenny Opera.” As tribute, Arthur offers Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny.” Isolated by the color-saturated whorls of Matt Berman’s superb lighting, she attacks Marc Blitzstein’s lyrics with chilling venom. Equally potent, albeit warmer, shading marks Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked Into My Life,” which caps Arthur’s fond memories of her “Mame” colleague Angela Lansbury.

Other anecdotes include one about a priceless Mae West encounter, a wicked account of dancer Swen Swenson’s dog reacting to Jerome Robbins’ name, and some hoary jokes, which Arthur’s nonpareil timing nonetheless puts over. Her affecting renditions of Goldenberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s songs from “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” remind you that the best comedians play from a wellspring of darker emotions. I salivate to imagine what Arthur could do with Sheridan’s harridans, Shakespeare’s beldams and Beckett’s crones.

Goldenberg is a marvelous pianist and perfect foil, despite some faux-spontaneous business that has the immediacy of a two-year tour. Fans won’t learn anything unexpected -- this show is more professional than confessional. However, Arthur’s plug for Massachusetts’ gay marriage policy feels heroic, and the allusions to Barbara Cook’s “Mostly Sondheim” and Elaine Stritch’s “At Liberty” are delicious. So is Bea Arthur. Only an Archie Bunker mentality could resist her scintillating expertise.


‘Bea Arthur at the El Portal: Just Between Friends’

Where: El Portal Theatre, 5629 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. today; 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $40 to $55

Contact: (818) 508-4200

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes