Theatre in Review: The Pee-Wee Herman Show (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)
The reviews for The Pee-Wee Herman Show have leaned toward that old critical cop-out that says, You'll like it, if this is the kind of thing you like. I will now join the craven majority and say pretty much the same thing.
How could it be otherwise? I was never a Pee-Wee Herman fan the first time around -- I recall being alarmed the first time I saw him on David Letterman -- even though many of my friends thought he was hilarity defined. Somehow, the whole Pee-Wee phenomenon passed me by. To me, the biggest shock at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre was the intensity of its fans, and the joy with which they greeted each joke, secure in the knowledge that, in most cases, they already knew the punch line. And, as so many have reported, you should be prepared to cover your ears each time the secret word of the day -- it's "fun" -- is mentioned, as it unleashes a deafening cascade of cheers from all assembled.
Also, as a relative Pee-Wee neophyte, I was startled by the raciness of the humor. I always understood that Pee-Wee's Playhouse was a spoof of children's shows, but I had no idea how tightly Paul Reubens and his co-authors, Bill Steinkeller and John Paragon, tread on the line of good taste -- such moments include Pee-Wee expressing his rapt devotion to his abstinence ring and his interaction with a strapping blonde firefighter who appears to wearing nothing under his overalls. When Mailman Mike, played by John Moody, looks at Reubens and murmurs, "That's a pretty cute package you've got there, Pee-Wee," Moody knows exactly how long to hold the pause, elongating our discomfort, before he pulls a bejeweled parcel out of his mail sack and tosses it over to his young friend. During the segment devoted to Pee-Wee's international pen pals, we hear from a young French boy who, at the age of ten, is a connoisseur of tobacco and red wine; we also hear from a middle-aged prisoner who thinks of Pee-Wee as his girlfriend.
Anyway, you've got to admire the skill with which Reubens and company dispense their gags -- and how, at 58, Reubens can still prance about the stage, every spastic movement intact. It's all there -- the baby-stepped walk, the pigeon-toed posture, the voice that issues from the depths of his nasal cavities to deliver every sentence in a singsong rhythm. And he gets stellar support from, among others, Phil LaMarr as Cowboy Curtis, the not-entirely-butch range rider, and Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, the show's in-house diva, and Cowboy Curtis' putative girlfriend.
And, for that matter, The Pee-Wee Herman Show is a cue-perfect technical extravaganza. David Korins' setting, a deluxe version of Pee-Wee's playhouse as seen on TV is a wild car-cars of colors and shapes -- a Populuxe dream house seemingly constructed out Colorforms and populated by bizarrely antic inanimate objects -- including Chairy, the talking easy chair; Clocky, the opinionated timepiece; and the Magic Screen --which is, well, a magic screen. Basil Twist, the theatre's leading puppet master, has added any number of creatures, including Terry, the pterodactyl, and a trio of singing flowers. Ann Closs-Farley's costumes include Pee-Wee's iconic suit, some wildly flared taffeta gowns for Miss Yvonne. Jeff Croiter's lighting layers extra colors and patterns on the already over-stimulating scenery and costumes, proving that, in the case of Pee-Wee, too much is just the beginning. Jake Pinholster has also contributed some droll projection sequences, including an instructional film about manners that will strike a Proustian chord with any baby boomer who has clear memories of his or her elementary school days.
Indeed, the design is such good fun that it kept me thoroughly amused during the show's short 80-minute running time. The director, Alex Timbers, runs a tight ship, and the show proceeds at a rapid clip, without a second of wasted time. (Between this and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Timbers can lay claim to being the director of Broadway's two most indescribable shows.) Somewhere around the 70-minute mark, however, my good will caved in and I was ready to go home -- to say that this wasn't a typical reaction is, at the least, an understatement.
All of which brings us back to where we came in. Do you hate Pee-Wee? This show won't change your mind. Are you indifferent to Pee-Wee? Well, it's good for some laughs. Are you a Pee-Wee Fan? What are you doing, wasting time, reading this?--David Barbour