Joan Rivers, seen here in 1994, when she starred on Broadway in “Sally Marr…and her escorts,” a show about comic Larry Bruce’s mother.
Thinking about the brouhaha over whether Broadway theaters should (or should not) dim the marquee lights for Joan Rivers tonight at 6:45 p.m. in New York (they WILL dim them), I went back into the Sun-Times’ archives to search for my review of her 1994 Broadway debut, “Sally Marr…and her escorts,” in which she played the funny, brassy mother of her idol, the transgressive comic Lenny Bruce.
Under the headline “Avenger Moms on Broadway,” I paired the review with another show — a production of Euripides’ “Medea,” starring Diana Rigg.
Here, in its entirety, is a re-run of that review:
NEW YORK… Mother’s Day is just around the corner. So now’s the perfect time to celebrate two highly theatrical megamoms – Medea and Sally Marr, both of whom are starring on Broadway at the moment.
Age before beauty, so let’s start with “Medea,” featuring Diana Rigg in the title role. This riveting British production at the Longacre Theatre transforms the 5th century B.C. tragedy by Euripides into a searing, 90-minute emotional storm charged with a fiercely modern immediacy.
“Medea” is the story of a woman who loses all her power but none of her pride when her husband, Jason, decides to go off with the much younger and well-connected daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. Condemned to exile and homelessness, with two young children to care for, Medea, a woman already known for her temper, decides to fight back with unusual ferocity – avenging herself on her husband by killing their children and his lover.
Directed in stark but unfailingly bold strokes by Jonathan Kent, with a lean, timeless, high-octane translation by Alistair Elliot, the play is flawless in every detail, from design to musical scoring. And it features a tour de force performance by every member of the cast of 10.
The marital fights in “Medea” seem to leave a circle of scorched earth in their wake. A phenomenal chorus of three women, dressed in black like the widows of Greek mountain villages, intone their strong advice and terrible prophecies with mesmerizing force. And, draped in red, Rigg (a commanding actress who can attract sellout crowds to an ancient classic thanks to memories of her sexy Emma Peel role in the TV series “The Avengers”) allows jealousy to drive her along the path to the most horrible murder a mother can commit.
Peter J. Davison’s stunning set – towering, angled walls of distressed steel panes that literally burst from their hinges at a climactic moment – is only a further reminder that the British have not lost their magic touch on stage.
Sally Marr, now 87 years old and living in Las Vegas, is best known as the larger-than-life mother of the brilliant, taboo-breaking, dirty-mouthed comic Lenny Bruce.
That is not quite as she would have liked it; after all, she had her own show-biz dreams, which she pursued for decades in second- and third-rate clubs while single-mindedly playing single mother to her only son. But, as she concludes in “Sally Marr . . . and her escorts,” the phantasmagoric stage bio starring Joan Rivers at the Helen Hayes Theatre, that also gives her the distinction of being godmother to a whole generation of American comics.
“Sally Marr” (which I saw during previews) is not really a play at all. It’s performance art. And as strange and unlikely as it may seem, that makes Rivers (who wrote the piece with Erin Sanders and director Lonny Price) something of a Broadway pioneer.
Most surprising of all is just how compelling she is as an actress. Her show – part vaudeville, part theater of the absurd – is rather crudely written and has conceptual problems aplenty. Yet the flaws tend to fade in the face of the pure, unstoppable force of Rivers’ galvanic presence and the almost eerie intensity she brings to this two-hour marathon performance, which suggests a darker, funnier and more Oedipal version of “Gypsy.”
“Sally Marr” begins as Rivers schlepps up the aisle of the theater and climbs onto the stage. Outfitted in a ratty mink coat and weighed down with a slide screen and a gold Chanel tote, she turns the audience into a night school class in stand-up comedy – Sally Marr passing on her wisdom from the auditorium of Our Lady of Esperanza. The first assignment: “Take your most painful memory and twist it to make it funny.”
Flash forward as Marr is rushed into a hospital emergency room, the elderly victim of a rape and stabbing. Then flash backward as Marr recalls her nightmarish life – an abusive, mentally ill mother; pregnancy at 16, with a forced marriage to the handsome British Jew who would leave her before their baby, Lenny, was born; countless jobs; visits to burlesque houses with her impressionable young son, who receives the ultimate in offbeat liberal educations; her gigs as a salty nightclub comic and USO performer, and finally, the emergence and tragic self-destruction of Lenny Bruce.
All the subsidiary characters in the story are played by three largely silent “escorts” – two male, one female – with brief fragments of Bruce’s routines heard on tape. This is unquestionably Sally’s show, and while her adored son may have eclipsed her in real life, he is only second banana here.
Although the Rivers persona is so strong it never exactly fades, she makes you see Marr through her own rather astonishing life force. It’s quite an act.