In "Insideoutsideandallaround Shelley Berman," Mr. Berman is offering us himself. All comedians do this, of course, but in the one-man show that opened at the Bijou last night (and the title is not as silly as it sounds), Mr. Berman is letting his sensibilities hang out. They are civilized sensibilities, and we like them. But all a capella over an evening, they wear thin. Mr. Berman is entertaining only now and again.
Mr. Berman does set pieces, skillfully interspersed with whatever happens to be on his mind: the sound of a siren on West 45th Street, a woman coughing in the audience, the air-conditioning in the Bijou. There is a freshness then, even when we know they are as carefully calculated as the set pieces. Most of these, monologues that Mr. Berman was doing 20 years ago, we have heard before.
There is, for example, his monologue about the man who calls a department store, trying to warn someone, anyone, that a woman is hanging from the ledge. There is the monologue about the man who calls a friend, and gets a small child, instead. There is the monologue about tiny catastrophes: the misstep when you enter a room, the piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe. At the heart of nearly all of Mr. Berman's work is a baffled man, living in fear of small disasters.
Mr. Berman does all his routines with impeccable timing and absolute assurance. Familiarity in itself does not diminish our joy in them; it is more that when we first heard them, 20 years ago, petty frustrations were funnier. They are less so now. In New York, In New York, at least, their comic possibilities have been mined time and again.
Some of Mr. Berman's monologues go on too long. A piece about trying to get hotel maids to stop giving him tiny bars of soap is really a one-line joke; Mr. Berman turns it into a short story. A piece about a man trying to fall asleep (Mr. Berman does it with the lights out) is terribly clever, and, after a while, terribly tedious.
Twice, however, Mr. Berman gets to us, and the curious thing is that he does it not as Shelley Berman, the monologuist, but as Shelley Berman, the actor. The first time he does it in a number about an American ambassador, meeting the prime minister of a friendly country, assisted by the prime minister's interpreter. The ambassador is callow; the prime minister is abject (Mr. Berman makes him look like a drunken Akim Tamiroff); the interpreter is a conniver. The meeting ends with a declaration of war. It is very funny.
And the second time is when Mr. Berman impersonates his own father. The impersonation is simultaneously tough-minded and sentimental, and Mr. Berman does it at the end of the evening, when he wants to make us laugh and cry at the same time. He does. Substance and acting skills win out, but it is a long while to wait.