Stand-up comic Jeff Garlin learned how to make people laugh from the bathtub. As a toddler, he cracked up his parents by filling a plastic toy with water and announcing that it was "concentrated." He garnered even more chuckles with words such as girdle and Jamaica. A shtick that only a family could love, this early joke repertoire cemented Garlin's addiction to getting attention through comedy and propelled him on to funniest-kid-in-the-class status in Plantation. Jump-starting a stage career by peddling gags to audiences in Fort Lauderdale and South Beach, he moved on to act and do standup in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, ping-ponging between those three cities for over a decade. Now he's back home in South Florida with a one-man autobiographical show that recounts his journey through the contemporary comedy scene.
Garlin bronzes his early bathtub bit by calling his solo piece Concentrated. Originally presented this past summer at the Live Bait Theater in Chicago and co-produced here by C.R. Theatricals and Area Stage Company, the show earned its title for another reason A Garlin has always had trouble concentrating. He explains the poignant medical reasons for this difficulty over the course of an hour at Area Stage on Miami Beach; his candid unveiling of how these various conditions have affected his career provides one of the more arresting elements of this extended monologue. However, Garlin's inability to stay on track also contributes to an unevenly timed performance that lacks punch and fails to do justice to the strength of his writing.
Rife with killer material that begs for development in certain places, the show boasts several high points, notably the one in which Garlin vents his spleen over what passes for humor in most comedy clubs. The guy also has such a disarming stage presence that it's impossible not to like him or not to root for him. He opens the show by confessing to a crisis of confidence: He doesn't think he's funny any more. He was funny at twenty, he assures us, back when he was hungry, desperate, and when, as he puts it, "I needed to be hilarious." But after years of sharing stages with homophobic, misogynist, and racist comics and playing to audiences with shrinking attention spans who like those comics, he wonders if he should even bother. As he decides the fate of his career, he reveals sardonic and sometimes juicy behind-the-scenes details, such as the one about the South Beach club proprietor who was determined to pay his weekly salary in coke instead of cash. He also peppers the show with impressions -- from club owners to Irish fortunetellers to comedy masters such as Jackie Mason and Jack Benny -- that convey his considerable acting talents (Garlin has guest-starred on television shows such as Roseanne and appeared in movies, including Stephen Frears's Hero). However, despite such moments, Garlin's breezy, self-deprecating style lacks focus; the production has an unrehearsed tone. Ultimately the piece comes off like a work in progress instead of a fully conceived evening of theater.
Concentrated would benefit from several once-overs with an editor's pen that would deepen the portraits of existing characters, develop one or two new ones, and probe more keenly into the source of the comedian's disaffection with his chosen field. But what the show really cries out for is direction. Garlin needs an uncompromising taskmaster with some distance from the material who will force him to -- I have to say it -- concentrate, someone who will listen to the rhythms of the text in order to pace Garlin's delivery. With adequate attention, the show would play like a theater piece and not like a half-improvised stand-up routine.
Garlin's current director, Marc Grapey, prefers a passive approach, as, wittingly or not, his bio in the program reveals: "Marc directs with mittens." Intended, no doubt, as an inside joke -- the true meaning of which is lost on me -- that epigram betrays Grapey's reluctance to grab hold of both Garlin and his material with two unmittened paws and guide each into coherence. Only with unsparing hands-on treatment will Garlin give the jarring performance about the dark side of jestering that remains untapped in the show's current state.
Dust off the gin still. Tune up the ukulele. And forget the dark side. There's nary a shade of gray in Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick's cornpone diversion Radio Gals, jubilating down at Coconut Grove Playhouse through the end of the month. A light-as-a-feather nostalgic romp through the early days of unregulated radio, the plot-thin musical serves up several big-voice tunes, some foot-stompin' live music, and a fine old (if forgettable) time.
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In 1927, Hazel Hunt (given a feisty portrayal by Helen Geller), long-time music teacher in Cedar Ridge, Arkansas, receives a 100-watt transmitter from her students as a retirement gift. Immediately she commences broadcasting a radio show from her parlor. With the help of Miss Gladys Fritts (Eileen Barnett), the town flapper and a poet, and several former pupils dubbed the Hazelnuts, Hazel brings music, news, sports, and astrological readings to the town A and beyond. Government man O.B. Abbott (Lenny Wolpe) shows up to investigate why Hunt's WGAL has been reaching all the way to New York and California. Seems as if Hazel's been practicing an early and illegal form of channel surfing, or "wave jumping," as O.B. calls it -- turning the transmitter dial all the way to the left or right at her flagrant whim in order to settle on any available frequency that clearly transmits her show. O.B. means to stop her.
The impeccably produced Radio Gals premiered at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and played the Pasadena Playhouse and La Mirada Theatre (both in California) before arriving in Miami. The production sports a cheerful set by Gary Wissman; a chipper cast that alternately sings, dances, and plays a variety of live instruments A from piano to bass to accordion to tuba; and some delightful solos, including "Dear Mr. Gershwin" (performed by Klea Blackhurst) and the spirited revival number "Royal Radio" (inspirationally sung by Emily Mikesell while she plays a mean fiddle). The down-home tone and the variety-show format recall National Public Radio's contemporary offering A Prairie Home Companion, although Gals lacks the droll wit and wry delivery of Companion host and writer Garrison Keillor.
Oh, yes. Two of the 'Nuts are men dressed as women: Scott Harlan as Mabel Swindle, and Mike Craver, the show's co-creator, as Azilee Swindle. And that's about as risky as this pleasantly benign, old-fashioned, barn-raising piece of fluff gets.