Whoopi Goldberg, as she chooses to call herself, is a brilliant diseuse who came to the Lyceum last evening, seemingly out of nowhere. Long may she whoop.
She is both a satirist and a chronicler of the maladjusted and dispossessed. Being black, the characters this versatile and appealing woman portrays, three in the first half and three in the second half of her solo show, are mostly black, too. But not all, or not necessarily so, for her very second number, a portrait of a violated 13-year-old surfer, immediately conjures up the image of the omnipresent dizzy blue-eyed California blond seemingly turned out en masse from cookie cutters. The character, continually tossing her hair and talking in rapid, breathy phrases, turns slowly from funny to pathetic. And the crippled woman with the terribly distorted body that is straight and true in her dreams could be of any origin.
But these are really her secondary turns. When we first encounter her, she is a street Arab, a junkie slouching into our vision wearing a sly look and, her basic costume throughout, black tunic and slippers. By degrees, as she leads us to the airport and Europe, we learn she's a Ph. D with some special insights on the contradictions found both in European culture and our own. Then back home in a nervewracking but funny flight.
She opens her second half with the narrative of a Jamaican woman who came north with a wealthy octogenarian seeking companionship and who inherited the mansion and millions to go with it. This is followed by the gem of her collection, a stooped panhandler, a nostalgic old man who once was, before a careless accident incurred while tapping barefoot on a series of big drums, a member of the Nicholas Brothers act, and who remembers fondly all the great blacks of his profession, especially Bill Robinson who, unlike Shirley Temple, never had a doll created in his image. Her relatively brief show closes with a brightly optimistic 9-year-old who lets a white blouse dangle from her head as she imagines she is a long-haired blond and white.
The voice changes and mannerisms are astonishingly expressive throughout. There is a tendency at times to sentimentalize, but that is almost always subject to a cutting edge, and there is probably an over-indulgence of raunchy humor dotted with ripe puns. But these are minor matters.
Between pieces, she ambles upstage, back to us, to ruffle or reshape her ropey hairdo ("do-do braids," she terms them), and don a floppy hat or headband (or that white blouse), and then smilingly returns downstage, transformed by her own special magic. You'll laugh with her, love her, and be wounded, too.
Another reason, another season for making Whoopi! Prophecy time.
I predict that Whoopi Goldberg, the comic actor who last night opened a one-woman turn at the Lyceum Theater, will become a cult hero. She is possibly a cult hero already.
She seems to have everything going for her - including a quite sizable talent and a more than sizable nerve.
She has been described, I think by her co-producer and production supervisor, Mike Nichols, as: "One part Elaine May, one part Groucho, one part Ruth Draper, one part Richard Pryor and five parts never before seen."
She is probably, on a good night, all of the above, at least, in part, but given a choice I would settle for Ruth Draper.
She, like Draper, is a diseuse, almost a social diseuse, because of her friendly habit of dangerously provoking a white audience's guilt.
But she is clearly an actress before anything. And on her own terms an extraordinarily good actress.
Her program - I understand - varies from night to night. But she always comes on, it seems, as Fontaine, a spaced-out junkie with a PhD in literature, a fear of flying, and a hatred of flying stewardesses and flying food.
She tells us of a trip to Amsterdam. Her language is laced with obscenities, but otherwise unbuttoned. Her body constantly twitches, and is, like her mind, in perpetual motion, as she amiably threatens the audience.
Her mobile face is challenging - and she has a wide, sentimental streak right down her backbone. For Whoopi not only wants to be feared, she wants to be loved.
As she goes to pains to assure us, she is a warm, human being, who wishes to be invited back.
In Amsterdam - guess what? - this plain, old junkie, this common but not so garden thief, this mocker of convention and scourge of liberal fears, goes to Anne Frank's house.
And she is overwhelmed - but overwhelmed. It ain't for nothing she's called Goldberg.
For me there was a constant disparity between the indisputable qualities of Miss Goldberg as an actress, and the cute, manipulative nature of her material.
She is so good, that she deserves better. So does her audience. Although, in fairness, when I saw her, the audience appeared amply satisfied.
For me she was at her best as a 13-year-old surfer from the Valley, p.g. (as she has to explain that is not a movie rating but a state of pregnancy) deserted by her Catholic religion and her family alike, left to abort herself with a metal coathanger.
The sketch is beautifully done. Whoopi, before our very hearts, actually becomes this affected, muddled, lost kid. She is wry, tough, very funny and, here, pretty honest.
But even here she undercuts herself, with meretricious details and a shrewdly slick ending.
You never quite know whether she's aiming to play Las Vegas or play for keeps.
She does a rather moving sketch about a cripple - "this body isn't meant for disco" - and a writer who loves her, and asks her to marry him. It is a delicate line she has to walk here, keeping her balance between the comic and the maudlin.
She is pulling all of her chestnuts out of the fire, when suddenly she blows it.
She feels a need - not for the first time during the show - to underline the obvious with red ink.
She grins a crippled, mischevious smile, and endearingly informs us: "Normal is in the eye of the beholder." Oh yeah! We never would have guessed.
A little black girl dreaming of long blonde hair, a panhandling, former hoofer recalling past triumphs and persuading the audience to hold hands - such cameos are certainly adroit.
Just watch the way she plays with a shirt or her head, pretending it is golden tresses, or look at the world-weary face and world-practiced shuffle of her decrepit hoofer.
It's marvelous. But it's also, in essence, second-rate. Cheap at any price.
She can be more simple than simplistic, and then she can be richly comic. I loved her portrait of a Jamaican lady brought to this country by an old, old man who looks like a raisin, and needs her for "housework, cooking and a little nookie."
Her ability to suggest character is almost peerless...in this she truly is like Ruth Draper. But Draper herself was limited by the draperies she sold.
Miss Goldberg should possibly take a hard look at herself.
The far happier news is that so should the Broadway audience. Whatever - or whoever - else she is, she is an original.
Certain facts are not in doubt about Whoopi Goldberg, the comic actress and monologuist who has brought her one-woman show to Broadway. Miss Goldberg is a warm, almost childlike performer with a sweet clown's face, an elastic body, a sensitive social conscience and a joyous stage name. What is in question is whether she yet has the range of material and talent to sustain a night of theater. Don't be surprised if you leave the Lyceum feeling more enthusiastic about Whoopi Goldberg, the personality, than ''Whoopi Goldberg,'' the show.
During the course of her sporadically entertaining 90-minute presentation (plus intermission), the actress creates six principal characters, all social misfits. With only a simple pants-and-shirt costume, a few props and an empty stage (superbly lighted by Jennifer Tipton), Miss Goldberg can instantly transform herself from a jivey, feral black male drug addict to a whiter-than-white 12-year-old Los Angeles Valley Girl.
Impersonating a deformed, disabled woman later on - ''This is not a disco body,'' she explains - the actress suddenly untangles her crippled physique and voice to act out the character's touching, balletic fantasy of being ''normal.'' It is also endearing to watch Miss Goldberg don a hat and puff up her cheeks to play a proud, aged, gummy-mouthed bum lost in fading memories of tap dancing with the Nicholas Brothers.
Such high points notwithstanding, the suspicion persists - at least to a first-time Goldberg watcher - that a still-developing fringe-theater act has been padded and stretched to meet the supposed demands of a Broadway occasion. Miss Goldberg, much like Lily Tomlin, wants to make us laugh, cry and think. Yet her jokes, however scatalogical in language, can be mild and overextended, and her moments of pathos are often too mechanically ironic and maudlin to provoke. At least twice, Miss Goldberg announces that she doesn't intend for her putatively threatening outcast characters to make the audience ''nervous.'' How one wishes that such disclaimers were actually necessary.
Take, for instance, the opening routine about the junkie. Miss Goldberg imagines that the character would fly from New York to Amsterdam and end up paying a solemn visit to the Anne Frank museum. This is an inventive premise, but the overstuffed execution runs nearly a half hour. Part of the excess is wholly gratuitous. When Miss Goldberg strings together wisecracks about cold airline food or sends up the television series ''Bonanza'' as dubbed into German, she's reviving Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman stand-up shtick of 20 years ago. A more exasperating form of self-indulgence tames the sketch's potentially startling denouement. The spiritual communion that the stoned black man achieves with a Nazi victim loses its impact once Miss Goldberg allows her previously inarticulate character to hammer in the message - even to the point of explicating Anne Frank's most famous diary entry.
Though the other segments are briefer, they all go on too long - and they nearly all follow the same primitive dramatic formula. The sketches usually start out friskily and then lurch toward a sentimental trick ending. Sometimes the sentimental conclusion is downbeat - the dippy Valley Girl is heading towards an abortion - but more often it is uplifting: The deformed woman finds love, and the old dancer invites the audience to hold hands in brotherhood.
The epiphanies that soon result - ''Normal is in the eye of the beholder'' or ''Take somebody by the hand and you are free'' - are no less platitudinous for being declared in earnest. Miss Goldberg breaks through the homilies only in the ingenuous and compact final sketch, in which she portrays a nine-year-old black girl facing the realization that she'll never be white, blue-eyed and blond.
Like many young writers and performers, Miss Goldberg hasn't mastered the art of letting the content of her material emerge elliptically from its specific details. By repeatedly shifting from diffuse clowning to omniscient preaching, she vitiates her characters' spontaneity and manages to make even her deepest feelings sound contrived. One need only examine the work of Miss Tomlin and Richard Pryor - or, to be less invidious, that of such Off Broadway-spawned quick-change performers as Charles Ludlam and Eric Bogosian - to see that the most stinging comic cameos wrap any message seamlessly (and subversively) within the laughter.
Miss Goldberg's show has been ''supervised'' by a master of comedy, Mike Nichols. The supervision doesn't seem to have been particularly tough-minded. Besides failing to edit and shape the sketches, Mr. Nichols permits his star to step out of character with long, coy takes acknowledging the audience's response to the better punch lines. Perhaps the director was so taken by the actress' charm - as who wouldn't be - that he feared any tampering might blunt it. Whatever the explanation, Whoopi Goldberg's liberating spirit fills up the theater, even as her considerable comic promise is left waiting to be fully unlocked.