SAY GOODNIGHT GRACIE
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
When R. Bruce Connelly is featured on the program, you can expect a very entertaining evening at Seven Angels Theatre. His interpretation of George Burns in “Say Goodnight Gracie,” lives up to his reputation. The actor, who has been honored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for playing “Sesame Street’s” dog “Barkly,” and also received Connecticut Critics Circle’s “Outstanding Performer in a Musical Award” for “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum,” is mainly known for his comic roles. However, playing the comic, straight man, George Burns, must have presented new challenges for both the actor, and director, Semina De Laurentis. Keeping in mind that many people in the audience still remember George Burns, the atmosphere on stage must be smooth, witty, and at the same time capture this wry, self-assured character without overacting. This tough mission was successfully accomplished.
De Laurentis, was inspired by Rupert Holmes’ play when she first saw it on Broadway in 2002 with Frank Gorshin. She realized that this solo role required “...a formidable actor with impeccable timing” and she certainly knew whom to ask. You will be amazed at Connelly’s sensitive portrayal of this down-to-earth human being whose career unexpectedly soared after he thought he had retired from show business. The play is also a tender love story about the performer’s wife and comedy partner, Gracie, whom Burns depended upon both on and off the stage. When she died, Burns never got over her loss. Projected snapshots of the early days, allows the audience to peek into the entertainer’s mind as he tells these fascinating stories.
Few people realized, when they heard the “Burns and Allen Show” on the radio, and later on TV, that George Burns’ real name was Burnbaum, and that his partner, Gracie, was his real, Irish Catholic wife. Life was hard for Burns, who grew up in Manhattan. He was one of twelve children. His father died when he was seven, and the child immediately became a wage earner by selling newspapers and shining shoes. The rising entertainer was so poor that he made free, tomato soup lunches at the cafeteria -- by mixing cups of hot water with ketchup.
In telling these nostalgic anecdotes, Connelly nicely incorporates George Burns’ familiar mannerisms. This keeps the show lively. The smug grin accompanied by the tapping of one finger on the side of the forehead is typical, Jewish, sign language for “clever-thinking.” The ever-present cigar gave him something to do with his hands. The sucking cheeks accompanied by closed, thin-lipped pauses after each cynical remark, were timed for laughs. All of these gestures have come alive. You almost forget that Connelly is not the real George Burns.
Without a sense of humor, how can a person suddenly awake from retirement to become one of the “Sunshine Boys,” catch his breath in order to speak for God in several more films, and still live to be 100? See “Say Goodnight Gracie,” for clever remarks that are both funny and wise.
Plays Through: March 10
Tickets: 203 757 4676