Comedian Rita Rudner has always known how to tickle an audience -- and the same is mostly true of her slight but sugar-sweet new play, “Tickled Pink.” It won’t make gigglers out of the congenitally not-ticklish, but everyone with a decently sensitive funny bone should spark to its cute, diverting antics.
Adapted from her bestselling book of the same name, the play, which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Laguna Playhouse, “is not Rita’s biography,” director Martin Bergman, also Rudner’s co-adapter and husband, writes — somewhat unconvincingly — in his program notes. Fans of Rudner will recognize key plot points, characters and even some of the jokes, including quarter-century-old material from one of her earliest TV appearances as part of HBO’s first “Women of the Night” comedy special in 1987, which costarred a similarly green Ellen DeGeneres.
Rudner’s sort-of alter ego in “Tickled Pink” is 18-year-old Mindy Solomon (Emma Fassler), a frizzy-haired Jewish girl from Florida who moves to New York to become a dancer. (Rudner, not so coincidentally, got her showbiz start dancing in Broadway chorus lines.) That dream doesn’t last, but after encouragement from BFF Ursula Duran (Annie Abrams) and a so-bad-it’s-good debut at a local comedy club, Mindy finds a new love.
What makes this experiment in dramatizing comedy work are the actors’ asides to the audience — moments when the action freezes and they step forward to crack a biting one-liner. Fassler, affecting Rudner’s airy, detached delivery, is funniest in these moments. Her performance, like her sense of humor, improves as the show goes on — which, unfortunately, can’t be said for the rest of the 13-person cast, who play multiple one-joke characters with varying degrees of effectiveness and tedium. Even Rudner, hamming it up in three roles, feels unnecessary.
Also unnecessary is the production team’s excessive indulgence in ’80s cues, from Dwight Richard Odle’s costumes to scene transitions consisting of fuzzily projected images and clips of decade classics such as “Jessie’s Girl,” “Flashdance … What a Feeling” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” They distract from the comedy.
And the show is funny. Giggles are constant and well-earned throughout. But missing from the 2 1/2-hour night are big, throaty laughs. It’s sort of like being tickled, by very capable hands, in all but our most vulnerable places.
“Tickled Pink,” Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 7 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Ends May 20. $30-$70. (949) 497-2787 or www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.