By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Long before the Manic Pixie Dream Girl--that flighty, unstable film and television trope beloved by sensitive young men, reviled by feminists--had a name, Saturday Night Live comedy writer Alan Zweibel had Gilda Radner. After the comedienne’s death from ovarian cancer, Zweibel wrote Bunny Bunny, a memoir of their almost-relationship and long friendship, and later adapted it for the stage. The show premiered at Philadelphia Theatre Company in 1997, but with this more intimate revival, 1812 Productions--a company helmed by Jennifer Childs, another very funny woman--makes a better fit.
Zweibel’s script has some issues. A longtime writer for television, his scenes are far better suited to that medium. Onstage, the setup-zinger-blackout-set change-repeat formula quickly becomes tedious, and Zweibel, despite his admiration for Gilda and her talent, seems like kind of an ironclad jerk.
While we get a sense of what makes her tick, he’s just a regular guy joke-slinger who gets married, has kids and happens to have a very interesting friend. In what is essentially a two-person play (with a third actor, Matt Tallman, who flits in and out for incidental and unnecessary comic relief as a snooty waiter, screaming director, or one of Gilda’s new boyfriends), we need him not to necessarily match her vulnerability, but to at least meet her halfway. Of course, making people laugh is one way of diverting attention from yourself, but this sort of play depends heavily on its characters’ motivations.
Director Noah Herman wisely invests in making Leah Walton’s Gilda and Matt Pfeiffer’s Alan as human as possible. What success this production achieves is a result of Walton’s perpetually softening eyes and trembling lips, and Pfeiffer’s Everyman humility and blunt Long Island style. Everyone who wrote about Radner said she was so smart, kind, funny and open you couldn’t help falling in love with her. Walton’s performance of one of my favorite Radner bits, the song “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals,” from her solo show, Gilda Live, recaptures enough of that magic to make you wish she stuck around long enough to tell her own story.
Playing at: Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 3, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. Through Sunday, Oct. 27. Tickets: $25-$40. Information: 215-592-9560 or www.1812Productions.org.