Too much, not enough

Times Staff Writer

Stand-up superstar, talk show trailblazer, QVC hawker, red carpet harpy, Joan Rivers has had more careers than the Olsen twins and Paris Hilton combined. Yes, we know she's funny. No laugh track needed when she's around. But her real gift is for being a supercharged Hollywood yenta, a woman who would probably vanish in a puff of sequins were she deprived of an audience for her wisecracks about everyone else's dirty laundry.

"Let me tell you a story," she says directly to the audience in "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress," her cozy if only sporadically entertaining autobiographical show, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse. And indeed, Rivers' cup runneth over with anecdotes. An intermission-less play that crawls too close to the two-hour mark for anyone's comfort, the piece mixes tales from her well-publicized professional and personal struggles with shtick from her Heidi Abromowitz act.

There's humor and there's bile (including quite a bit of score settling). When she's not riffing on her face lifts, she's ripping Johnny Carson for supposedly blackballing her from late-night TV. There's also plenty of warmth -- and a fair amount of wisdom too -- from a showbiz survivor who's grateful that the final curtain hasn't yet cut off her just- getting-good monologue.

Rivers is like a Beckett character ad-libbing for her very life. She lives to perform, performs to live, as though blood and oxygen were fed to her from the spotlight.

No, it's not a solo piece. Two other actors share the stage with her pretty much the whole time, another one comes on near the end, and three others (including daughter Melissa) appear on camera in a spoof of an awards pre-show. But the focus is never in doubt. In fact, if Rivers were writing this review, mention of the bit players might be left for the fine print.

The setup -- pretext would be more accurate -- is that she's backstage in her dressing room on Hollywood's biggest night, gearing up to ask the frivolous and famous who they're wearing. Nothing is going right. Her usual team is missing in action, and she's saddled instead with a Russian stylist named Svetlana (Emily Kosloski), a would-be Muscovite Madonna, and Kenny (Adam Kulbersh), a nervous-Nellie assistant, who acts like he'd rather be impersonating his boss in a West Hollywood saloon.

To judge by the cheese plate the network sent over (and Rivers reads Gruyere and Camembert like tea leaves), she doesn't have much time left on her contract. TVV, the channel she's been relegated to, is following the younger demographic like the rest of the stampeding youth-obsessed herd. But don't think this glamour-glomming granny is prepared to go quietly into the assisted-living night.

Mellowing isn't what aging comics are supposed to do. If they're any good, they'll incorporate the indignities of growing old into their act. And Rivers, who's 74, springs out of one of her show's noticeable lulls when the topic turns to sex after 60. Jokes about Viagra, low-hanging body parts and a few items that couldn't even be suggested in a family newspaper elicit roars.

And oh, how the sound is like music to her ears. Back when, no one could have predicted this type of fanfare for chubby Joan Molinsky from Larchmont, N.Y., a Barnard bluestocking who got into the biz despite the protestations of her nice Jewish family, which raised her to marry a dentist or an anesthesiologist -- someone who wouldn't mind her mischievous gab. And with dog-paddling determination, she managed to stay afloat even after she lost her late-night show on Fox and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, subsequently killed himself.

That kind of perseverance isn't always pretty. And Rivers divides audience as viscerally as Hillary Clinton divides voters. Which is why it's a wise move for her to be ingratiating as a host, dimming the lights on her extras and cordially checking in on us from her Westside perch.

The production, handsomely directed by Bart DeLorenzo, boasts a fabulous set designed by Tom Buderwitz. As far as dressing rooms go, this one isn't meant to make its star feel too special. But glittery red carpet sights can be discerned on the horizon, a giant screen fills us in on Joan's past and present and lights flash thrillingly as audience members take their seats.

But the show, which Rivers wrote with Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell, hasn't mined enough gold from her treasure-trove of memories. A Joan Crawford mention promises more dirt than it delivers. She never really comes clear about her feud with Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch over her canceled talk show. And though she tells a fascinating -- and ultimately heartbreaking -- yarn about Mae West, you feel that anyone who was best friends with Roddy McDowall could tell you where the bodies are buried in Beverly Hills.

In short, she's both belaboring her grudges (would the people over at Leno please invite her on so she'll finally shut up about being exiled) and holding out on the stuff we'd really like to hear about. But unrecognizable as her plastic surgeon may have rendered her, she's still one of the legendary icons of comedy, an original funny girl who has basked and burned in the limelight, and still hungers, God bless her, for more.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Joan Rivers'

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

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through 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

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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