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NANCY REDMAN AT HER WIT'S END
Saturday October 19 at 2 PM
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Solo Theater Festival 2019
Directed by Bill Cosgriff
Reviewed by Jane Goldberg
This is the first time I’ve seen Nancy Redman, a stand-up comic and actress, although she did a great deal of her show sitting down. The actress is as gifted as the comic. Within minutes, it was clear that she was in charge. Her delivery, full of digressions and neurotic hesitations reminiscent of Jackie Mason (for whom she used to regularly open), was oddly commanding at the same time. Her premise? We were all patients on the 4th floor of a nursing home for retired comics and she was one of us, not just a performer. She’d been asked to headline a roast, but then the comic died. So instead she was going to do a memorial/roast. This was the McGuffin that launched dozens of jokes in a show that lasted just over an hour. She never delivered the roast or the memorial. Instead, she kept us waiting for it as she treated us to a treasure-chest of original, timeless humor. All the while, she let us in on the failings, losses and assorted ailments of her persona, so convincingly, that I left the theater wondering whether she really suffered from tinnitus and had trouble walking.
How did she do this? She called on invisible figures in the room, people she seemed to know very well— a social worker, a nurse, fellow retired comedians, her dead mother and ex-lovers— subtly swelling the audience for her strikingly original jokes. We, the visible, filled the small venue with laughter that erupted throughout the performance.
I grew up with a father who told jokes incessantly, so I’ve long had a squeamishness about oral joke tellers, afraid of repetition like my father’s, but Nancy Redman never repeated herself. She kept surpassing herself. Starting with a narrative premise, she fleshed out her back story as she let us into this world she was creating, and then did something most unusual: She gave us the punchlines first, and then asked us to imagine the stories that set them up. Her clever mind works in such mysterious, original ways, that this proved near impossible.
Her vehicle was to summon the imaginary, retired stand ups in the audience, calling on them by name, cajoling them with indulgent, encouraging familiarity, until she got them to deliver, from memory, the set-up of each timeless joke. Of course, it was Nancy herself who delivered, in a variety of voices and accents, male and female. Afterwards, she would deconstruct the joke, explaining why it worked. This was a joke in itself because the explanation was always the same, no matter what the joke. The protagonist of the joke was “right,” the ridiculous punch line uttered in all sincerity.
My favorite story was about a baby polar bear who felt like a misfit. He kept asking his mother and father if he were “100% polar bear” because he didn’t believe it. Finally, in exasperation, his father asked him why he couldn’t stop badgering them about this. “Because I’m f— ing freezing!” And the baby polar bear, of course, is right. We all feel illegitimate, in some sense. There is truth in humor.
There was another good joke about St. Peter taking a two-week vacation from Heaven, but I won’t give that one away. Her punchline to each punchline was always the same: "What can we learn from this?" This question was always received with raucous laughter from the audience, especially after her raunchiest jokes. I liked the way Ms. Redman shared her process, teaching us what makes comedy work.
She was hilarious recounting her comic “history” with impeccable timing, the old days when her stage name was said to be Helen Hall (bearing no resemblance to her long, Jewish birth name, full of consonants) and she performed with Nichols and May. Hall was the first to see, early on, that Nichols and May and Hall wouldn’t cut it. She was the luminary who realized that they’d be better off as a duo, reluctant as they were to see it for themselves. Likewise, she took credit for Burns and Allen and some solo acts. Redman’s stories and jokes, preposterous and hilarious, ended with the same question, "What can we learn from this?" Then she would proceed to tell us. Redman was right: Nichols and May, Burns and Allen, became legendary.
These riffs were buttressed with projections of photos and footage of Ms. Redman as a younger comic. One of her funniest bits was an audience favorite on “OPRAH’s Funniest Viewers” where, as the survivor of a heart transplant from a pig, she struggles to get her words out while incessantly oinking.
Nancy is such a consummate actress that it was hard to know whether she really needed the cane she used. Probably not. When she led us in a sitting dance class, she had some impressive moves, which she could do standing up and leaning on a cane as well. Her sit-down stand-up was always clever and engaging. We were encouraged to participate from our chairs, gyrating and waving our arms.
What did we learn from this stellar piece of comedy/theater? Old comedians don’t fade away. They tell great jokes and make people laugh, no matter where— on Theatre Row, OPRAH, or in a nursing home.
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