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Inflicting herself with the acid test

Times Staff Writer

“Oh! Can we talk?! Oh!”

The Hollywood wannabe launching into a spontaneous impression of Joan Rivers isn’t really looking for an answer -- not that there’s anyone around to respond to him if he was. He’s on a roll, prancing around, firing off signature zingers about bad sex and Elizabeth Taylor’s eating habits. He’s so wrapped up in his raspy Rivers rant that he doesn’t notice when the genuine article enters the room, killing him not-so-softly with her glare.

Actually, the Rivers coldly regarding the faux Joan is a bit of a poser too. It’s “Joan Rivers” as portrayed by the real-life title character and creator of “Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress,” opening this week at the Geffen Playhouse.

The spectacle of Joan Rivers playing Joan Rivers watching a character portraying Joan Rivers’ assistant doing a Joan Rivers impression (and that’s not even the punch line) is part of a brief comic bit in the new play, a mash-up of Hollywood insider memoir, backstage romp and dramatic leap into some of the rawest, most emotional periods of the 74-year-old’s life.

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“My lawyer said a few years ago, ‘I’m begging you, don’t do this,’ ” Rivers said after a recent rehearsal. “But then I think that just made me work hard- er on the monologues.”

To be sure, there’s no shortage of the barbed, caustic humor that has been at the center of Rivers’ act for more than four decades. But this time around, she has left herself more exposed than usual. The intensely personal nature of the project has landed the veteran entertainer simultaneously in a territory of strength and vulnerability.

When the run-through concludes with the last joke -- Rivers can’t seem to get out of the dressing room -- the small group of invited guests responds with reassuring applause and whoops. Yet despite the “very, very nice job” pronouncement from director Bart DeLorenzo, Rivers appears slightly uncertain, managing only a half-smile.

“Please, God, let this work,” she said quietly. “I really, really want this to be funny. I really want this to work.”

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Stalking the red carpet

“AWork IN PROGRESS” is set during the chaotic moments before an awards show. Rivers’ character is patterned after the notorious “Who are you wearing?” red carpet interviewer who has alternately delighted and frightened fashion-conscious celebrities for more than 10 years. The rest of the cast consists of a makeup artist (Emily Kosloski) and the personal assistant (Adam Kulbersh), as well as a demographic-conscious network executive (Tara Joyce). Supplementing the proceedings are video montages showing some of Rivers’ greatest hits -- and misses -- on the red carpet.

(Kosloski replaces original cast member Yosefa Forma, who was fired just a few days before previews. Said Rivers: “It was horrible -- the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. It was a nightmare. I’ve been there. But with Emily, the tone changed to what we wanted.”)

The briskly paced one-act puts Rivers in hyperdrive, prowling the stage, contorting, gesturing wildly, crawling. It’s a physical and emotional effort that might drain performers half her age, but she still bubbles with energy after the intense 90-minute rehearsal. Only her voice and body language register several degrees below the brash, take-no-prisoners persona on display just minutes before.

In her hands, a script is covered with purple Post-its, marking material that has been added in the last few weeks. She repeatedly asks DeLorenzo what he thinks of several new jokes: “Really, really, does it flow? Does it work?” The director mentions a particular foul-mouthed barb aimed at Suzanne Somers, shaking his head as if he can’t quite believe the audacious tone. Rivers’ half-smile becomes fuller. For a moment, it’s as though she is just another member of the company seeking feedback, rather than the dynamo at the center of it all.

But her relentless tinkering is an indication of how “A Work in Progress” represents more than just a time-killer between jewelry-selling gigs on QVC or another round of cosmetic surgery.

After all, she is performing in the same city where many of the incidents in the play took place. Rivers fled L.A. more than 20 years ago for New York after a series of catastrophes: her fallout with friend and “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson, the cancellation of her talk show on the fledgling Fox network, the suicide of her husband, Edgar.

That recognition has upped the stakes. In fact, preparations for opening night have consumed Rivers. She recites her lines at home, morning and evening. And she adds jokes almost every day. “I think of them in the shower,” she said.

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“A Work in Progress” was largely developed last year in a workshop at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Then it was known as “The Joan Rivers Theatre Project.” But it is hardly her first venture onstage. She penned the comedy “Fun City,” which ran on Broadway in 1972, then replaced Linda Lavin as star of Neil Simon’s 1984 “Broadway Bound.” In 1994, her “Sally Marr . . . and Her Escorts” made its bow, bringing her a Tony nomination for best actress.

Geffen officials saw the play in San Francisco. Artistic director Randall Arney said he and the Geffen’s producing director Gil Cates were “knocked out” by Rivers’ script. “It was some of what you’d expect, but then a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect,” he said. “Gil and I just loved talking to her about it, she’s such a pro as a playwright.”

Rivers bypassed the traditional one-person formula popularized in recent years by Elaine Stritch (“Elaine Stritch at Liberty”) and Billy Crystal (“700 Sundays”), instead opting for a format that uses fiction as the vehicle for the factual and personal. “At first it was about aging more than anything else,” she said. “I wanted to talk about what happens later in life. I have so many friends my age who can’t get work. It’s over for them. But as I kept on writing, all of these other issues came out.”

Much has changed since the brief San Francisco run. There’s a lot more about Melissa Rivers, who is discussed but never seen. Rivers said she wants to deal with the backlash her daughter may have suffered because of her. “It may be that she’s coming to grips with the fact that my sibling was her career and would get an equal amount of attention,” Melissa, 40, said in a phone interview.

Following its Los Angeles run, Rivers is scheduled to take the project to the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland, then London. She’s considering New York, but “I really want to be careful about that.”

Much like her stand-up act, Rivers often addresses the audience directly during the play, delivering acid-tongued commentary. She also shares several stories about working or hanging out with some of the most legendary figures in show business, including Barbra Streisand, Laurence Olivier, Elvis Presley and Bill Cosby.

True to form, there’s no shortage of skewering, and celebrities with the last name of Loren or known as an Olsen twin would be wise to avoid the Geffen this month. But typically, Rivers’ biggest target is herself. She mocks her cosmetic procedures, her sex life, being a grandmother and even her QVC sideline.

Joan as Joan, again

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Playing herself as a dramatic character is not completely uncharted territory for Rivers -- she and her daughter portrayed themselves in a 1994 TV movie, “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.” And she’s written several autobiographical books chronicling her ordeals. But this time, she puts her “Joan Rivers” through the ringer in front of an audience.

“When doing something like this, you totally do it as a part,” Rivers said. “It’s an acting exercise. You become her. We’re very different from each other, of course. We don’t wear the same clothes.”

However, at one climactic moment, Rivers and her character seem to melt into one as she addresses the audience about tragedies in her life. In early rehearsals, her eyes would well up, her voice cracking as she recounted her despair. But just when it seemed she was in near-collapse, “Joan” recovered with a triumphant self-realization.

“It’s so painful -- I don’t even want to think about it,” she said of those dark places. “I always just speak it. Otherwise I start to cry, and I don’t want to soak all of the emotion out of it. If I can get through a few lines, I know I’ll be OK.”

Her transformation from Rivers to “Joan” has been a revelation to director DeLorenzo. “Joan is an extraordinary actress. I would love to see her play a character in someone else’s play,” he said. “When that part comes up in the play, my job is to get the whole show out of her way.”

The timing of “A Work in Progress’ ” arrival couldn’t be more symbolic. Normally, Rivers would be teamed with her daughter on the red carpets. But the mother-daughter duo was unceremoniously dumped last year by the TV Guide Channel, which had hired them in 2005 as their star attraction after the duo’s nine-year stint on E! Entertainment Television. The network’s announcement of the ouster said only that it wanted to move in a “new direction.”

Her roller-coaster ride in Hollywood might explain why the former queen of the red carpet is convinced many in the industry won’t exactly be rolling out the red carpet for her.

“I think the knives will be out,” she said. “I’m not one of them. It’s so much more cynical here. The attitude here is that I’m such a non-person in this town.”

Instead of anxiety, that anticipated reception appears to have emboldened Rivers: “There’s a lot of things I want to set the record straight on. No one has tackled a lot of the things I talk about. This is my calling. I love the journey, I love the message of it -- don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do anything.”

And even if the knives are out, she is prepared. “What are they going to do to me at this age? Even if they hate me, I feel wonderful about this,” she said. “I love the theater -- it’s like going to the temple. I’m 74 years old and I’m still getting a dressing room. What’s better than that?”

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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‘Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: Opens Wednesday. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 30

Price: $35 to $79

Contact: (310) 208-5454


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