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Say Goodnight Gracie (10/10/2002 - 08/24/2003)


New York Daily News: "A straight man for all seasons"

If you are of a certain age, simply hearing the song "Love Nest" will make you smile, because it will remind you of George Burns and Gracie Allen. You hear "Love Nest," which was their theme song, fairly often in "Say Goodnight, Gracie," Frank Gorshin's one-man show about Burns. Each time it appeared, I found myself beaming, because I remember the husband-and-wife comedy team fondly from both radio and early television. They had a very dizzy sense of humor. When, for example, George and Gracie are standing on a ship deck and he asks her why she threw a life preserver overboard, she answers, "Oh, it was no good, George. It had a big hole in it."

Mostly, when you recall Burns and Allen, you think of Gracie's sublime illogic. (I have always loved a moment in "Damsel in Distress" when she tells George there's a Hawaiian on the phone. He asks how she knows he's Hawaiian if she can't see him. "He says he's Brown from the Morning Sun.")

Burns' contribution may have been more remarkable, because it was silent. It consisted of double takes and deadpans and knowing glances at the audience. His well-timed responses added as much to their "duets" as her perfectly delivered idiocies. The premise of Rupert Holmes' endearing play is that George has arrived at the Pearly Gates and has to audition for God (whom he played in several movies late in life) to see if he'll be admitted to paradise, where he knows he'll see Gracie. His audition consists of reminiscences about his own childhood on the lower East Side, then images of his career with Gracie, which includes outtakes from their films and snippets from their TV show. Many of their routines have been taped by Gorshin, with Didi Conn reproducing Gracie's voice and mannerisms extraordinarily well. Gorshin has mastered Burns' disarming smile and his gift for making even a flick of his trademark cigar a prompt for laughter. At times, his hobbled walk (a sign of extreme old age - Burns lived a few months beyond 100) seems forced, but it is a minor quibble. "Gracie" does not really aim to dramatize anything about Burns and Allen's lives or career. It is merely an amiable journey into the past. If your own memories are as vivid as mine, you'll find it irresistible.

New York Daily News

New York Times: "George Burns Takes the Stage, Just as He Might if He Could"

All you need to know about the level of sophistication of ''Say Goodnight Gracie,'' which opened on Broadway last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, is that it begins with George Burns talking to God.

''I'm a big fan of Yours, too; I loved the Ten Commandments,'' says Burns, who, it turns out, is in limbo and is going to have to tell God his life story to be allowed into heaven.

Such is the childish fashion in which Rupert Holmes's one-man play, which stars Frank Gorshin, claims its raison d'être. If you're amused by this sort of thing, you'll be in heaven yourself, at least for an hour and a half. Otherwise, you'll probably remain in limbo for what seems like a lot longer.

Burns, of course, is as familiar and unthreatening a figure as American entertainment has ever served up. He died in 1996 at the age of 100, after two decades of caricaturing a wry old man and several others before that of vaudevillian comedy on the stage, on radio and on television, much of it in tandem with his wife, Gracie Allen, who died in 1964.

And Mr. Holmes's script recounts his life story in genial anecdotes from a childhood on the Lower East Side, through the rigors of vaudeville tours and the fortuitous meeting with Gracie, whose ditzy stage persona turned him into a straight man and made both of them stars; his friendship with Jack Benny; and his latter-day career as a movie actor (he played God three times) and pitchman that began at age 80.

This last is the Burns embodied by Mr. Gorshin, the one that became a familiar and dapper icon who, with a sport jacket, round black glasses and a cigar, delivered twinkle-eyed asides about pretty young women.

''Say Goodnight Gracie'' is as toothless as a 100-year-old man, but to carp about it is pointless, like punching a marshmallow or criticizing a bedtime story. Its premise, from the outset, is shamelessly sentimental. From his posting in limbo, Burns is aching to rejoin Gracie, the love of his life, and he says again and again throughout the show that she was the talented one of the two, and that he was simply lucky enough to recognize that and hitch his star to hers.

You might question the strategy here, to have a solo show that is at least partly devoted to proving how untalented the soloist is. But it is, in that regard, at least partly successful; many of the gags in the script are dredged up from a long time ago and many others are written and delivered with the ba-dum-bum cadence that makes the punch lines register in your head before they're actually spoken onstage.

Besides that, Gracie appears in the show on recordings and projected photographs and film clips (a brief bit in which she uses George's electric razor as a hedge clipper is the funniest moment in the show), not to mention in conversations in which Mr. Gorshin speaks both parts, and in reconstituted Burns and Allen routines recorded by Mr. Gorshin and the actress Didi Conn. And all of this is powerful evidence that Burns's idea of their relative talents is correct.

Mr. Gorshin is an experienced and polished impressionist, and on his entrance, he is Burns incarnate. He's got the signature gestures down -- the puff on the cigar, the tongue inserted beneath the lower lip, the fingertip to the forehead to signal a smart move -- and at least at the start, the gruff rasp of a voice. But as the show lengthens beyond a stand-up bit and the gestures begin to repeat themselves, he speeds up his delivery and loses his grip a bit.

He doesn't have too much to do; he's playing a very old man, after all, and the director, John Tillinger, doesn't find much for him beside the obvious: the occasional hobble around and the tuning in of a Depression-era radio. (The best part of the staging is Howard Werner's handsome lighting.) And you may recognize suggestions of other familiar voices in the inflections of Mr. Gorshin's wiseacre Burns -- Kirk Douglas, for instance.

Still, George Burns's persona as America's lovably mischievous grandfather is fundamentally unobjectionable, and this image, which Mr. Gorshin is at pains to recreate, is successfully preserved. ''Say Goodnight Gracie'' remembers George Burns no doubt as he would have liked to be remembered.

New York Times

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