'Tomfoolery' at Act II Playhouse: A merry, cynical celebration of Tom Lehrer

(Left to right:) Patrick Romano, Tracie Higgins, Jamison Foreman, and Tony Braithwaite star in "Tomfoolery," a revue of Tom Lehrer songs, on stage at Act II Playhouse in Ambler until April 2.

This country needs  to be reminded of what good satire feels like. Tomfoolery, now in the cozy confines of Act II Playhouse in Ambler through April 2, a revue of the great Tom Lehrer's satirical songs from an active career of about 1953-72, does that — and after 70 sunny, cynical minutes (his revue-type songs are perfect for a revue), it sends you off with a grin.

Director/performer (and Act II artistic director) Tony Braithwaite hoofs and chortles, along with three ideal castmates: Tracie Higgins, Patrick Romano, and Jamison Forman. All are talented, game, arch, broad, mugging, marching on and off stage, with Braithwaite usually as emcee: "And now ... " They hide, exit, enter, and poke heads through a huge TOMFOOLERY sign on stage; they even bring letters out as props, as in the tunes "LY" and "Silent E."

Lehrer, who turns 89 in April, has not performed in public since the late 1990s. The high point was his stint with the influential NBC show That Was the Week That Was (1964-65). Everything from Saturday Night Live to the Capitol Steps bears his strong influence. But in the early 1970s, he walked away to teach high school math, famously quipping that satire had become obsolete after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His tunes are spoofs on music as well as sociopolitics, full of collegiate (think: Harvard, 1950) high jinks, marches, tangos, waltzes, Tin Pan Alley, and ragtime.

Dated? A little. But they're great songs and still have much to say. The show updates a couple of lines, but not many, and Braithwaite wonders aloud what Lehrer might do in a political climate like the present. But Lehrer's is a kind of humor we don't have any more, in which part of the fun lies in "saying what you're not supposed to say." No such thing today, so no such fun. In "Smut," a real spotlight for Higgins, the singer proudly intones: "Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately?/ I've got a hobby: Rereading Lady Chatterley." What a rhyme.

Tom Lehrer performs "Smut," Copenhagen, 1967.

Speaking of rhymes, let's let "When You Are Old and Gray," possibly the most cynical love song ever written, speak for itself:

An awful debility,
A lessened utility,
A loss of mobility
Is a strong possibility;
In all probability
I'll lose my virility
And you your fertility
And desirability,
And this liability
Of total sterility
Will lead to hostility
And a sense of futility,
So let's act with agility
While we still have facility,
For we'll soon reach senility
And lose the ability.

A tour de force, for writer and actors alike, and breathless laughter and applause ensue. Both "Smut" and "Old and Gray" remind us of the essential, merry cynicism of Lehrer. In truth, folks love porn; they just don't want to admit it. Eros is just panic in the face of advancing time. And small-town America? Perverts and drug dealers on every corner. It's funny, it's memorable, and that's the reason for your grin at the end.

These four really rollick. Foreman plays and sings "The Elements" and "New Math" (complete with whiteboard and marker) with road-ripping speed and precision; Braithwaite is fetching as the pope, and Romano and mates lovely as glittery nuns, in "The Vatican Rag." The show closes with a gusty "We'll All Go Together When We Go," a tune with "1960s nuclear anxiety" stamped all over it, and yet (notice?) still very much true. One false move, and we're all toast. 


Tomfoolery. Through April 2 at the Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler. Tickets: $31-$41. Information: act2.org, 215-654-0200.