What was a nice boy doing in a place like that - you might well ask. Robert Klein at the Circle in the Square, with Kenny Rankin as an opening act.
It savors of Las Vegas or Jonny Carson - or at least the Catskills and David Letterman. Yet there is a certain sense here.
The venerable Circle in the Square, although as Klein keeps reminding us in his act is a not-for-profit organization, is not all that crazy about loss either...and to have a dark theater over the holidays did not make much sense to its management.
Therefore, in a move less radical than might be thought, it has brought in Klein for an evening of comedy, cabaret-style.
Klein is scarcely a stranger to the theater. He trained at the Yale Drama School before getting a start at Chicago's Second City, and a few years ago he starred on Broadway - with a Tony nominationm, yet - in They're Playing Our Song.
He has even acted for Circle in the Square before on Broadway, in that 1968 triple bill, Morning, Noon and Night.
So for Klein a theater is more a home than a house. There are some comedians who tell jokes and some comedians who act.
Of the comedians who act there are the comedians who act characters and the comedians who act themselves. Klein acts Klein - for as long as the traffic will bear and the audience will stay. Luckily Klein is a very funny guy.
He is also very literate - a closet intellectual, doubtless with bizarre reading habits and arcane musical tastes. His wife is a mezzo at the Met - he calls himself "an opera pimp' - and he talks about Falstaff and Rigoletto as if he meant it.
He talks about the joy of being Jewish - and its perils - and the traumatic scars inflicted by travel. He worries at the growing paucity of language, and he reminiscences about his father and growing up in the Bronx.
He reminiscences about everything - about his battle of the bugle with his waistline (he is winning - again!), about his feelings for Germany, about his days at Yale.
As he runs around the stage - making ever decreasing circles in the Square - he evokes the ghost of Bernard Shaw, and tries to relate to a big laugter in the front row.
He works the room with a wary, glinting professionalism. He is no natural clown - everthing has to be split-secondly premeditated. He has to be fast on his feet metaphorically as well as literally.
And he is. His shticks come in untidy bundles as he neatly segues from one topic to the next, nimbly returning to some theme, hastily discarding others - the art of unimprovised improvisation.
He takes the audience on as both antagonist and ally. He plays with them and for them. And against them.
Speed is the essence - speed coupled with a sort of leisurely delievery. Never let them see you are too smart, or too stupid. Don't let them get a good focus on the whites of your eyes.
He brings on his band. It seems unnecessary. It is unnecessary - almost an essay in conspicuous waste. But he is going to sing a couple of crazy songs to keep his voice in and get his act off.
It works. The whole thing works. The man is a lovely actor, and is playing his song...himself.
Go, see and applaud...you may persuade Klein to come back playing someone else. Who knows? Even someone by Shaw.
Robert Klein is a seasoned prizefighter in the world of stand-up comedy.
Stalking the perimeter of the Circle in the Square's oval stage, jutting out his chin and glaring at the audience, the 43-year-old Bronx-born comedian suggests a verbal boxer pausing at the ropes for a moment to reassess his position. Then he strides back into the ring to deliver vigorous verbal jabs that puncture little balloons of social hypocrisy, phony conventional wisdom and false advertising.
Since making his reputation as a ''child of the 50's,'' skewering that decade's conformism and prudery, Mr. Klein has developed into a more freewheeling social commentator whose barbs carry an edge of moral criticism. His one-man show, which is playing a limited engagement, is an extended stand-up routine with an abrupt musical finale. Before Mr. Klein takes the stage, the acoustic pop-jazz crooner Kenny Rankin warms up the evening with a short, pleasant set of ballads.
Mr. Klein's humor touches on everything from the myth of Will Rogers (Could the man who said, ''I never met a man I didn't like?'' really have felt warm toward a heckler?) to jingoistic ice cream advertisements. Repeatedly, the comedian decries the tendency of mass culture to homogenize people's tastes and to gloss over distinctions of ethnicity and background. An excellent mimic, he demonstrates how cultivated vocal inflections can mask verbal viciousness and the way a highfalutin polysyllabic vocabulary takes the salt out of language.
A parallel theme to which Mr. Klein returns with a kind of embattled pride is his own Bronx Jewish background. So sensitive is he to anti-Semitism that the ordering of kosher meals on plane flights provokes paranoid fantasies of being verbally branded. A residual anger inflames Mr. Klein's account of visiting a university in Idaho where he is served a special supposedly Israeli dish that is totally unrecognizable: ''Jewish stew that looks like sewage.'' But later in the show, he pokes fun at an actors' strike in which performers with tough New York street accents complained about British actors being favored for Shakespearean roles. Where rigid by-the-book fairness comes up against common sense, Mr. Klein will inevitably side with the latter.
Mr. Klein takes a number of potshots at the hypocrisy of television. The Federal Communications Commission doesn't allow the actual drinking of beer to be shown on television so children won't know what beer is used for, he observes dryly. And he wonders why in one advertisement, the man herding cattle from a helicopter calls out to an animal being bred for slaughter, ''C'mon little heifer, we're gonna get you back to your mama!'' Mr. Klein gives his absurdist vision of culture a refreshing historical breadth when he recalls the illogic of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's radio stardom and points out that the sanctified world of baseball has had other scandals to rival this year's cocaine revelations. ''Every era thinks it has a hold on morality,'' he reminds us before going on to detail the vices of Babe Ruth.
Mr. Klein, who was last seen on Broadway co-starring with Lucie Arnaz in the hit musical, ''They're Playing Our Song,'' ends his show with two pop-rock parodies, a sarcastic all-American travelogue and a Jewish blues number. While the musical segment seems tacked on to the show as an obligatory big finale, it suggests another side of Mr. Klein, the official toastmaster as rock-and-roll cutup - the Blues Brothers' swinging uncle. And that makes sense. On the spectrum of comedic hipness, Robert Klein stands midway between Johnny Carson and ''Saturday Night Live.''