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Theatre in Review: Jacqueline Novak: Get on Your Knees (Cherry Lane Theatre)

Jacqueline Novak. Photo: Monique Carboni

"Okay, that was hell." These are the words with which Jacqueline Novak greets her audience at the Cherry Lane. It's nothing against them, of course. "I hate a confident entrance," she adds. "I find it crass." It's just the sort of upside-down-and-sideways observation that informs her thoroughly original approach to comedy. At first, she works to convince us that she is the least corporeal of beings: "To be trapped in the female form is a burden. Every day you leave the house with goals and dreams and things to do, you're forced to lug it along, like a sack of sex potatoes, constantly having to say, 'No taters for sale tonight, boys!'" Indeed, she insists, "At times, to be a woman is to be the Great American Novel baked inside a cheesy-crust pizza: Whether someone's hungry or they're looking to read, either way, they're annoyed." She also riffs on one of her great goals in life, which is to be a ghost, leading to a fairly hilarious digression about her obsession with "nonfiction paranormal programming." All of this is delivered with a wicked glint in the eye and a ripe sense of the absurd. As for her self-deprecation, don't you believe it: Recalling a dating incident from her youth, she says, "And I cry because, frankly, no one moves me quite like me."

There's a reason for the show's title, however, and I imagine you don't need me to spell it out. The reason for her agony during the show's opening moments is that, in her view, the entrance to the microphone is, to her, quite the same as the prelude to oral sex. Making her way down her love object's body, she says "Everyone knows what you're about to do, but you're not doing it yet, so this question hovers in the air: Can she do it? Will she do the thing well or not well?" And thus is revealed the evening's main topic. In Get on Your Knees, she harvests humor from the act of fellatio, and -- for most of the running time, anyway -- she does it with remarkable élan.

Novak's greatest skill is taking a conventional idea and flipping it so thoroughly that black suddenly resembles white and night seems brighter than day. She offers an extended consideration of the penis, transforming it from a traditional symbol of male power into a pathetic being that needs all the protection it can get. She argues, surprisingly convincingly, that heterosexuality is really the most effeminate preference around. (After all, if you were really man's man, wouldn't you want another guy? Only girly men like soft, feminine women, she insists.) And you've got to admire anyone who manages to work T. S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the motivation guru Tony Robbins into her exhaustively detailed examination of the act of going down on a man. (Vladimir Nabokov gets name-checked, too, thanks to her penchant for sitting in the window of pizza joints, wearing a field hockey kilt and reading Lolita.)

Such are her skills at finding comedy gold in gritty sexual details that, for a good portion of Get on Your Knees, I was convinced that Novak is the American counterpart of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who, with Fleabag, had me in stitches over the kind of jokes that normally leave me cold if not actively embarrassed. One of the secrets of Fleabag's success is that it ran only sixty minutes -- a concept that Novak might have embraced: At the one-hour point, Get on Your Knees is one of the funniest shows in town, but there is half an hour to go, and during that time the fun fades by degrees until one is impatient for it to be over. I speak largely for myself; at the performance I attended, the audience, filled with Novak fans, stayed with her to the very end.

One wonders if the director, John Early, sought to convince his star that, in this case, less might be more. Otherwise, he lets Novak be Novak, which is quite often enough. The show has very basic lighting by Stacey Derosier and sound by Theda Hammel, who makes good use of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." Many a comic has struggled with expanding his or her act to a length suitable for an Off Broadway gig, and there's no getting around the fact that, at a certain point, Get on Your Knees ends up on its knees. But Novak at her best is a cold blast of common sense, scrubbing away much of the nonsense attached to clichéd ideas about male-female relations. --David Barbour

(23 July 2019)

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