Not Just Laughs: Stand-Up Comics Come to Broadway

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Actor John Leguizamo attends the opening-night curtain call of Ghetto Klown at the Lyceum Theatre on March 22, 2011, in New York City

"Anything that keeps me off Dancing with the Stars is good," Chris Rock was telling David Letterman a few weeks ago, explaining why he's co-starring in his first Broadway play. It was a perfect Rock line, a characteristic mix of bluster and self-mockery. And if the play — titled, with a bit too much bluster, The Motherf---er with the Hat — seems less fulfilling than a straight-up dose of Rock telling jokes on a concert stage, well, you can't blame stand-up comics for wanting to work.

They're getting plenty of work on Broadway lately. Robin Williams, another stand-up superstar making his Broadway debut this spring, is playing the title character in Rajiv Joseph's Pulitzer Prize–nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Jim Gaffigan, one of the funniest comics on the current club-and-concert circuit, co-stars as a onetime high school basketball star in a new revival of That Championship Season. One-man shows, meanwhile, have been enjoying a resurgence, from last season's deft history lesson Long Story Short — starring Colin Quinn and directed by Jerry Seinfeld — to John Leguizamo's newest solo piece, Ghetto Klown, and Mike Birbiglia's nifty off-Broadway show My Girlfriend's Boyfriend.

It's not hard to see the attraction, on both sides. Stand-up comics, nurtured in dingy clubs and college auditoriums, see Broadway as the ultimate class gig. Broadway sees them as potent box-office draws — ones who (unlike some Hollywood stars) already know their way around a stage. It would be hard to imagine Bengal Tiger, a downbeat play about the Iraq War, having any hope at all on Broadway without Williams' name attached. And the casting has potential: Williams plays the last tiger in the zoo from which all the other animals have escaped in the chaos of the war's early days. But anyone looking for traces of Williams' zany brainy stand-up persona will be quickly disappointed: he's in his clenched serious-actor mode here, soliloquizing to the audience with elbows crooked close to his sides, hands gesturing almost daintily. What's more, after a sharp opening monologue, the tiger is shot to death by a U.S. soldier and spends the rest of the play as a ghost, ceding the spotlight to other characters including a philosophical translator and Saddam Hussein's sadistic son Uday. One longs for the comic Williams to burst forth and give this earnest but murky play a swift kick in the pants.

Though a less accomplished actor than Williams, Rock would seem to have a simpler task. His Broadway vehicle, written by the talented Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot), has more comedy, and his role seems easily within his range. Rock plays the AA sponsor of an ex-con (Bobby Cannavale) who returns from prison to find evidence (the eponymous hat) that his wife has been cheating on him. But Rock's hyperbolic, high-pitched performance style — which has an irony of its own in his stand-up — doesn't offer enough shadings for a character who is forced to take some unconvincing turns as part of the playwright's tinny treatise on addiction, friendship and betrayal.

Given Rock's and Williams' bumpy stage exploits, it's fitting that Leguizamo's new show is all about his travails looking for acting work in Hollywood, and his eventual realization that where he really belongs is ... back on a Broadway stage! Ghetto Klown is too long and self-indulgent (there's something creepy about a show that builds in applause lines for the star's previous Broadway shows), but it's a lot more fun to see Leguizamo's dead-on impersonations of stars like Steven Seagal and Al Pacino than it probably was to see him on-screen with them.

The comedian who's most in his comfort zone this spring, however, is Birbiglia, a shlumpy, winsome New York City stand-up who's following up his hit 2009 one-man show, Sleepwalk with Me, with an even better one. My Girlfriend's Boyfriend has a perceptible narrative — the ups and downs of a relationship — but is loose enough to accommodate all sorts of digressions, from a nausea-inducing amusement-park ride called the Scrambler to Mike's hapless efforts in a female exercise class ("I've given up on having a traditional male physique ... Now I'm going for strong independent woman"). There's always method in Birbiglia's apparent aimlessness, most notably in his lengthy endpiece: a harrowing tale of his legal wrangle over a minor car accident, which becomes the impetus for a climactic, redemptive encounter with his girlfriend. It's not just good stand-up comedy; it's just possibly the best 15-minute stretch of playwriting I've encountered onstage all season.