With the decline of the comedy duo, the straight man no longer plays a prominent role in our culture. But in Rupert Holmes’ “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” the revival of the one-man show that opens Sunday afternoon starring Joel Rooks as funnyman George Burns, the king of straight men gets his due.
In a kind of celestial occurrence worthy of an actor who played God on film (the “Oh God!” trilogy from the late 1970s and early ‘80s), the Off-Broadway play’s opening date and time coincide with another, one-time-only performance of the same play at Brooklyn College, with Alan Safier in the lead role. In both productions, Didi Conn provides the recorded voice of Gracie Allen.
Rooks and Safier have both spent years touring the country in Holmes’ play, which was first produced on Broadway in 2003. Safier is an actor, singer and voice-over artist. (His Off-Broadway debut came in 1978 in another play called “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” written by Ralph Pape, that had no connection to either Burns or Allen; it focused on five high school friends who gather in the East Village.) Rooks understudied Frank Gorshin in the original Broadway production, which holds the record as the third longest-running solo show in Broadway history. Rooks has also appeared on Broadway in “The Royal Family,” “The Sisters Rosensweig” and “The Tenth Man.”
Based on Burns’ own reminiscences, the 90-minute play follows Burns from his poverty-stricken upbringing as Nathan Birnbaum on the Lower East Side, to his career in vaudeville, his marriage to comedy partner Gracie Allen and his ultimate stardom on radio, film and television. In “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” the cigar-chomping comedian, who died in 1996 at the age of 100, is compelled to audition for God as a prerequisite to joining his beloved Gracie in heaven.
Holmes (born David Goldstein) is an extraordinarily versatile American-British composer, musician, novelist and playwright. His hit songs “Escape” and “Him” were pop standards three decades ago, and he has composed tunes for Wayne Newton, Dolly Parton and Barry Manilow. In 1985, his Broadway musical, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” won a Tony. In the late 1990s, he wrote “Remember WENN,” a highly regarded television comedy-drama about a fictional 1940s radio station. And his 2003 novel, “Where the Truth Lies,” inspired by his worship of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, was made into a film starring Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth and Alison Lohman.
In an interview, Holmes told The Jewish Week that “Say Goodnight, Gracie” covers the history of the American entertainment industry. “Burns represented that incredible group of scrappy dreamers who were born into unspeakable poverty and found a way to get out and rise above it through show business.”
However, Holmes noted, Burns was unlike more extroverted comedians like the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Jimmy Durante.
“His humor was more intellectual,” Holmes said. “It was a kind of slapstick of the brain.” Burns’ breakthrough came, Holmes said, when he realized that he needed to switch places with Gracie and let her be the funny one. “He knew how to play into her comic genius. He became the greatest straight man who ever lived.”
With the success of “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” Holmes now wants to write about Burns’ best friend and frequent co-performer, Jack Benny. Benny was, Holmes reflected, the greatest friend that Burns could have hoped for.” He was the other love of Burns’ life.”
“Say Goodnight, Gracie” is performed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. at the St. Luke’s Theater, 308 W. 46th St. For tickets, $29.50-$59.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com. The play is also performed this Sunday at 2 p.m. at Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Theatre, 2900 Bedford Ave. For tickets, $30, call the box office at (718) 951-4500. After the performance at Brooklyn College, there will be a talkback with Safier and Holmes.