Have you ever been in a room with a group of people and felt like a total outsider? Everyone is in on the joke but you. This pretty much sums up my experience with The Pee Wee Herman Show. I’ve never seen his Emmy Award-winning TV program or his movie; I had no clue who the characters on stage were, and I didn’t get what was so funny. “I know I am, but what are you?” and other catch phrases do tend to wear a bit thin pretty quickly.
The audience, however, reacted like one big fan club. They roared when the music began; when Paul Reubens, the actor who plays Pee Wee, entered; for each and every human and inanimate object on stage. And when it was announced that “the secret word is ‘fun’,” the sound in the theater was deafening every time that word was spoken.
There’s no discernable plot as far as I could figure out. Pee Wee lives in a brightly colored and patterned house, with lots of talking friends, including fish, a robot, a bejeweled screen, and an especially vociferous chair. In a more existential existence, this would be cause for alarm.
It must be said here that the performers are excellent. Reubens himself is a terrific comedic actor, who is far more endearing than the tiny snippets I’d seen of his work would suggest. His energy never flags, and his sense of enjoyment is contagious. In addition, I especially liked Jesse Garcia as Sergio, the repairman. Garcia exudes likeability, and while staying in the moment, manages to convey the attitude of being kind to a dotty old uncle. Likewise, Phil LaMarr, as Cowboy Curtis, is a joy to watch. He’s exuberant and sexy, and the stage lights up every time he and his heavily eyelashed horse ride into town. I also appreciated the work of John Paragon, as Jambi, a disembodied head in a box, who acts as a mystic of some sort. Incidentally, the luminous jade green face paint he wears is gorgeous.
There were lots of kids in the audience, obviously brought there by grownups eager to share their own childhood experience with Pee Wee. They all seemed to be having a great time, and the occasional double entendre gags are pretty mild. The one real objection I had was that the house was incredibly cold; bring an extra sweater.
There’s much to admire in this production. The faux infomercials on screen were clever, the flying sequence was well done, and there’s lots of sparkle. Director Alex Timbers wisely keeps things moving along at a brisk pace; the décor and costumes are spot on.
I think I would have gotten into the spirit of the play a lot more had not every entrance, expression, and song been greeted with howls of laughter and applause. I would like to have been able to discover this vaudeville act on my own, without having had every punch line anticipated. Had this been the case, I think that for me, this show might have been a lot more- oh no!- fun.
The Pee Wee Herman Show
Stephen Sondheim Theater
124 West Street, NYC
90 minutes, no intermission
Through January 2, 2011
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics. www.michalljeffers.com