Practical Theatre Company

at the Vic Theatre

At the end of his Stagebill biography, Paul Barrosse, the director and one of the stars of Bozo the Town, includes his scouting report: “Bats right, throws right, bad hands. No speed. Can hit. Buoyant.”

Maybe. Barrosse is onto something; maybe comedy is like baseball: you don’t need many hits to be a star. I mean, in the major leagues, if you hit safely an average of three times out of ten, you probably could negotiate a multi-million-dollar contract for yourself. Hit safely four times out of ten and you’re a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

Bozo the Town, the latest comedy revue by the Practical Theatre Company, bats about .190–barely high enough to keep it in the big leagues. Less than two jokes out of ten really succeed. If that’s a tolerable showing for a baseball player, I suppose it should be acceptable for a comedy troupe. Certainly being funny is just as difficult as hitting a fast-breaking curve. Still, I was hoping for more from the group that just closed Art, Ruth & Trudy!–a hit show that ran for more than a year.

Bozo the Town certainly looks good. The Practical people make good use of the wall of video screens at the rear of the Clubland stage (in the Vic Theatre), and they incorporate some memorable special effects. (Any group that detonates fireworks above the customers’ heads will not soon be forgotten.) The revue also sounds good, thanks to the musical direction of Steve Rashid, who plays keyboard, while his friend Don Stiernberg accompanies him on a variety of stringed instruments.

But when you get beyond the surface, there’s just not a lot going on in Bozo. Predictable topics–yuppies, glasnost, antismoking campaigns–are handled in predictable ways, robbing the show of insight and surprise. Even though many skits start out promisingly, almost all end on a note that’s as disappointing as a towering fly ball snagged by the center fielder at the warning track.

The three performers are uniformly appealing. Barrosse and Victoria Zielinski, veterans of the Art, Ruth & Trudy! run, are both personable and droll. And Barrosse is a terrific mimic. As a chimpanzee, he has the perfect vacant, curious stare, and his impersonation of Bruce Springsteen really lampoons the star’s witless sincerity. Kyle Heffner, who has the daunting task of replacing the standout of the Art, Ruth & Trudy! show, Jamie Baron, wisely avoids straining for laughs. He also makes a fine chimpanzee, and a plausible Neanderthal man too, but he’s at his best when he plays characters from real life, such as the French panhandler or one of the comedy writers creating policy for President Reagan.

By far the best skit in the show is the saga of Bozo and Clyde, two vaudeville performers lionized here for their tasteless jokes. Barrosse, impersonating Springsteen, sings about the infamous comedians (“If it was tasteless, if it was snide, it was a joke told by Bozo and Clyde”). Meanwhile, Heffner and Zielinski perform scenes from the duo’s act. (“What weighs 20 pounds and dangles? A baby on a meat hook.”) The duo’s search for the truly tasteless culminates in a dreadful bit featuring Helen Keller singing the blues. (She frantically taps the lyrics into the palm of a translator, who then sings them to the audience.)

This wonderfully weird skit literally ends with a bang, and if there were a couple more as imaginative the show would be batting well over .300, but the rest of the gags in Bozo are uninspired. A facile song about DINKS (double income, no kids) portrays them as selfish and shallow. (“We just need us, we’re all we need/If it feels like love it must be greed.”) Zielinski demonstrates the obvious when she proves that no flesh-and-blood female will ever look as good in a leotard as the mannequin on stage with her. Heffner borrows the moves of famous silent-film comedians to squeeze a few laughs out of a skit about mouse poison.

One song celebrates Fawn Hall, Jessica Hahn, and Donna Rice for all becoming famous for 15 minutes in the same way. In a segment featuring a home video of an aged grandmother celebrating her birthday, Barrosse and Zielinski do some good character work, but ultimately the skit goes nowhere. The spoof of Swan Lake is about as imaginative as it sounds. A song about glasnost–Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policy of openness–draws on threadbare anti-Soviet sentiments (“We’ll free an intellectual if he’ll stay ineffectual . . .”). And the closing spectacle–a televised “revival”, in which Jim and Tammy Bakker are confronted by Jerry Falwell–is technically impressive but awfully tame. The stage fills with smoke, video images of the characters appear on the television sets against the back wall, and the fire-and-brimstone sermon features real televised flames. The skit takes all the predictable shots at phony TV evangelists without being the least bit provocative, but the visuals are so strong that you may not notice that the gags aren’t very funny.

As the show ends, and the credits roll across the large TV screens while the musicians play the theme song, Clubland suddenly seems like a TV studio where a comedy show is being captured “live” on tape. That’s probably apt, for virtually nothing in Bozo the Town would be too irreverent or satirical for mainstream television. Despite the iconoclastic reputation the Practical Theatre Company would like, Barrosse, Zielinski, and Heffner are unfortunately players ready only for prime time, and not the big leagues.