George Burns Comes Delightfully Back to Life at Ivoryton Playhouse
By Amy J. Barry
As soon as the lights go down at the Ivoryton Playhouse and Say Goodnight, Gracie gets underway, the stage lights up with an outstanding performance by R. Bruce Connelly as George Burns in the one-man play.
It feels like you’re right there in the same room as the beloved comedian, who died in 1996, and that he’s come back to life to once again to regale us with his old-fashioned brand of heart-warming, gentle humor -- the kind of humor that didn’t rely on insults and shocking language like much of contemporary comedy, but instead on nuanced and clever, thoughtful writing.
Say Goodnight, Gracie, written by Rupert Holmes, opened on Broadway in 2002, starring Frank Gorshin with Didi Conn providing the off stage voice of Gracie Allen. Conn is also Gracie’s voice in the Ivoryton production.
Connelly is a regular at the Ivoryton and his comfort as Burns makes it clear that this isn’t his first time in the role—he played the part at Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre in 2013 -- and it’s also obvious that he did his homework studying Burns -- his comedy and mannerisms -- as they evolved over the decades.
The autobiographical play starts with Burns in limbo between life and death, responding to God’s request that he reviews his 100 years on earth before he can join his comedic partner and wife, and the love of his life, Gracie Allen, who died of heart failure 32 years before him.
The play accurately chronicles Burns’s life and career from his early years as a Jewish kid in a New York tenement apartment with 12 siblings and a mother widowed in her 40s, learning to do whatever it took to help put food on the table, and later applying his creative survival skills to forging his way through vaudeville, radio, film, and television to become a star.
Burns met and fell in love with Allen, the ditzy and endearing Irish Catholic girl, in his Vaudeville days, just when he is finally realizing, at 30 that “I’m running out of things to flop at. If I’m getting laughs singing and dancing, why not get laughs actually doing comedy?”
He created the George Burns and Gracie Allen radio show that transitioned into the very successful TV show airing from 1950-1958, when Allen retired.
Allen became much more than a sidekick. Burns, as I was surprised to learn, wrote most of Allen’s material, and then sat back and played the straight man, feeding her the lines that allowed her to deliver her wonderfully naive, punchy retorts. Even without appearing on stage, Allen’s recorded voice on radio and in projected film clips garnered most of the laughter from the Ivoryton audience.
Without Allen, Burns probably wouldn’t have risen to the level of celebrity he achieved. In his book, Gracie, A Love Story, he aptly describes Allen as “smart enough to become the dumbest woman in show business history.”
Michael McDermott directs this production, bringing out the best in Connelly, and interpreting the script in a charmingly, understated way.
Except for holding the signature cigar and donning the big round glasses Burns wore in his later years, Connelly doesn’t ham it up or make Burns into a caricature. He also doesn’t quite capture Burns’s unique vocal intonations, but makes up for it in his facial expressions, body language, on-spot timing, and total absorption in his character.
Daniel Nischan’s scenic design of the cemetery where Gracie Allen is buried creates a pleasant, distraction-free backdrop for Burn’s conversation with God. He also includes a vignette of Burn’s study where he sits in an easy chair and puffs on his cigar while reminiscing. Marcus Abbott’s changing lighting adds dimension to the one-person, one-act play, as does the projections by Gaylen Ferstand and sound by Jo Nazro.
Say Goodnight, Gracie is at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street in Ivoryton through Nov. 18. Tickets are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.