REVIEW: Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular (Hell-Handbag)

 

A Comic’s Comeback – Wishful Thinking on a Roll

 

 The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #8 by David as Joan

   
 Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
 
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular
   
Written by David Cerda
Directed by
Cheryl Snodgrass
At
Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 6  |  tickets: $10-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Self-destruction, it seems, is the quickest way to create a comeback. In this case it’s as if a 747 pulls out of a talespin just about 100 feet before crashing into the runway. Author/producer David Cerda’s latest confection for his Hell in a Handbag zanies is the perfect vehicle for Ed Jones to do his wicked imitation of Paul Lynde, a basket case in free fall. Except that for legal reasons Jones’ on-the-skids comic who craves a second chance in show biz is now called Rip Nelson (R.I.P.—get it?) who’s hosting a 1970 live taping of a CBS variety show, a Halloween “spooktacular” that he desperately hopes will stop his slide into the bottle. When he gets in trouble, he Ed Jones as Rip Nelson in the The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular - Hell in a Handbag - Mary's Attic reverts to his tag line, “Wooga, wooga!,” a joke that becomes more pathetic as Rip tears himself up. But never fear—Rip is blindly hurtling toward happiness!

Unctuously neurotic (with classic Lynde-like dithering), Jones’ sad-sack Rip amounts to a one-man disaster area. Mired in a self-pity that morphs into toxic insecurity, he hits the bottle and insults his faithful dresser (Barbara Figgins channeling Thelma Ritter). We get, of course, a ton of bitchy byplay in the dressing room, catty wisecracks that feel as familiar as a funhouse mirror. Rip morosely calls his show a “celebrity cemetery where has-beens go to die.”

Somehow addled Rip manages to throw himself into this vaudevillian variety show where the guests interact like tornadoes spawned from a hurricane. These include, of course, Cerda’s patented parody of Joan Crawford who, with Rip, laments ungrateful Christine in the jaunty duet “Kids” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” By now Cerda’s Crawford has become the default drive for the celluloid monster in fetid flamboyance; she’s easily the scariest think in the Spooktacular. But Joan gets plenty of grotesque competition from Missy Aguilar’s strait-laced Kate Smith. This blowsy belter performs a clever duet with Red Genson’s geeky Bob Dylan that perfectly folds the latter’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” into the former’s “God Bless America.”

Imitations that sometimes can pass for impersonations, these usual suspects from the disco decade include Brigitte Ditmars’ hilariously peppy Ann Miller (who hoofs up a storm to “Spooky” complete with phony tap dancing), BC Kalz as an embarrassingly off-rhythm and tone deaf Brooke Shields ruining David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters,” and Michael Hampton’s no-nonsense Bea Arthur (who deadpans “Monster Mash” with an equally dour Dylan). Aaron Lawson adds spice as Donny Osmond, squeaky clean as he demurely declares himself “homosexual catnip”. (This is 40 years ago, mind you.)

Elizabeth Lesinski, as a chatty Charo, makes you realize what killed vaudeville as she launches into the conga-dancing finale “Hootchie Cootchie Halloween,” a deliberately daffy production number that features Rip as Carmen Miranda on steroids. Completing the encourage are Patricia Austin’s adequately brief cameo as Phyllis Diller, Andrew Swan as insolent Brady brat Susan Olsen, and Alex Grelle’s bittersweet Shelley Duvall, a riot as she becomes the butt of everybody’s insults because she’s ugly and offers absolutely no consolation for her father’s failure to appear.

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #4 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #6 by David as Joan
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #10 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #1 by David as Joan

When it turns out that Rip’s mad scene is the result of Quaaludes that he accidentally drank when he stole Donny Osmond’s glass of orange juice, the loser suddenly rallies and discovers he’s not washed up after all. That of course is just when he’s given a new chance, a CBS comedy with Don Knotts. (This is a show that really believes you can have your cake and eat it too—mock Rip and then care about his comeback.)

It all makes for an exhausting 60 minutes full of what will seem to younger audience members esoteric to arcane cultural references from two generations ago. Despite its brevity, Cheryl Snodgrass’ staging often feels jerky: The dressing room scenes repeatedly drop the energy. (It might be better to play this as a continuous TV show with appropriately stupid commercials inserted during the breaks.)

Kudos to Kalz’ self-caricaturing wigs and to Brian McKnight’s sound design which delivers the variety show’s essential laugh track. But it was all but drowned out by a tipsy Andersonville audience who offered their own clap-happy ovations: Their kindness to these “strangers” amounted to shining generosity. But then everybody loves a loser…

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular-Production photo #2 by David as Joan

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