Malignant Humor

Want to hear an AIDS joke?
A one-liner about crack addicts?
Okay, how about the riots in L.A.? That's a knee-slapper for sure.

Maybe you think I've finally crossed the boundaries of sane Homo sapiens taste -- well, not yet. I don't believe these subjects lend themselves to wry humor, no matter what the Actors' Playhouse wants to believe. In marketing Tomfoolery, a painfully dated piece by Fifties- and Sixties-humorist Tom Lehrer, there's mention of its relevance to today's woes. For example, one of the 29 songs featured in the musical revue -- "I Got It From Agnes" -- obviously refers to venereal disease, a questionably amusing topic even in these days of antibiotic cures.

Similarly, at one time "The Old Dope Peddler" might have contained perverse humor, back when the most daunting image of one was a juvenile delinquent hanging around the school yard. But thoughts of a heavily bejeweled murderer ripping apart babies' hearts in the crossfire just doesn't put a smile on my face, any more than the song "National Brotherhood Week" -- a barb against prejudice -- holds any coy intellectual appeal in the sooty aftermath of the Los Angeles riots.

Sure I'm old enough to have laughed at Lehrer, the Smothers Brothers, and TW3 (the weekly TV satire, formally called That Was The Week That Was, that introduced David Frost to American audiences). At the time, hot issues -- the bomb, pollution, pornography, mass murder -- found a public voice through clever skits and songs. Maybe laughter was the proper outlet then because everyone lived in an age of relative innocence, before the true malignancy of the human condition had begun to sunk in and thrive. But now the soot is not funny, and the erosion of the ozone layer brings with it the danger of carcinomas sprouting up on tanned bods everywhere. Nobody chuckles at the notion of the bomb in Saddam Hussein's hands, and visions of severed limbs pervade the nightmares of Gainesville and Milwaukee residents.

Who wants to sing about these things?
Of Lehrer's tunes dealing with other sordid conditions, the witty rhymes succeed, but the gritty punch withered long ago. "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie" suggests the South supports racism (No kidding! So does the North, Midwest, and West), "New Math" (the title alone sums up the problem), and "The Vatican Rag," which, although it's a catchy tune, proves nowhere near as dark and funny as the Church itself. Personally, "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" worked for me -- I've grown tired of cleaning bird dung off my terrace -- and "Silent E" contains a cleverly added reference to Dan Quayle's "potatoe" problem.

As tedious as the material may get, the production owns an energy and charm the audience can't help but enjoy. This show was a hit at the Playhouse several years ago with the same director (David Arisco) and much the same cast (Paul Louis, Donna Kimball, and Steve Jordan, who are joined in the current production by new member Francisco "Pancho" Padura) -- not surprising, when you witness the professionalism and apparent ease with which the group sells such saggy material. Employing just the right touch of tongue-in-cheek humor, Arisco makes sure the pace never slumps, quite a feat considering the ineffective jingles. Of the cast, Kimball in particular heads for the edge but stays on her feet; such precise comic skill has to be admired. Paul Louis also earns appreciative attention. And the flawless Cheers/Saturday Night Live set knock-off by Jeff Leonard perfectly suits the flavor. Please -- give these folks a more dynamic show!

Lehrer, now retired from show business and teaching somewhere near the San Andreas fault, certainly boasted a finely wrought New England mind. "World War II produced great songs," he wrote, "though it wasn't primarily a musical." When film actor George Murphy was elected to public office, Lehrer prophetically enthused, "At last we have a senator who can really sing and dance." And as the wimpy preppie graduates sing his ditty, "Fight Fiercely Harvard," they note that "soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life." Such lines fall intothe same timeless bag as Noel Coward. Sarcasm endures as the highest form of wit.

But what do you do about an evening that also pokes fun at Irish ballads, Oedipus Rex, sadomasochism, nudity in National Geographic, and Mexican muggers? And regarding the more "controversial" material -- songs the cast say are "in questionable taste" -- perhaps I'm just jaded; tired of snickering at social tragedies that don't change and cruel conditions that never seem to improve.

Then again, I suspect you are, too.

TOMFOOLERY words, music and lyrics by Tom Lehrer, adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray, musically staged and directed by David Arisco; with Paul Louis, Stephen Jordan, Donna Kimball, and Francisco "Pancho" Padura. At the Actors' Playhouse, 8851 SW 107th Ave, Kendall, through August 16. Performances Thursday -- Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $15-$18. Call 595-0010 for more information.


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