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A CurtainUp Review

Black Humor

How does a comedian turn a stand-up act usually associated with TV or a club into a play? Judging from the eponymously named Black Humor which just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre, the transfer from one kind of stage to another is largely a matter of expansion (80 minutes instead of the usual less than 30), and a thrift shop couch and towers of bundled up newspapers to suggest the timeliness of the humor. Jackie Mason managed to parlay his acerbic, take-no-prisoners brand of socio-political satire into several Broadway shows with a similarly minimal, if slightly slicker, set. Now there's Black who fuels his comic missiles with the same sharp-edged cynicism. He paces the stage with the same restless energy, stopping only long enough to cool his outrage at life's absurdities with a swig from a bottle of Evian.

Having cut his comic teeth via comedy clubs and TV shows, (notably the Conan O'Brien Show), the forty-eight-year-old Black's verbal barrage of curmudgeonly observations is aimed at younger more expletive-attuned audiences. As a child of suburbia and a graduate of the Yale Drama School, his accent is also more mainstream.

If the audience at the opening night performance I attended is any indication, he is reaching his target. The house was packed with constantly laughing and at times, applauding, thirty-somethings, with few representatives from the generation with one foot in the door of a Florida condominium in sight.

The comedian's nondescript somewhat jowly appearance makes him seem like the sort of Mr. Ordinary who'd be more likely to grunt "damn it" or " what can you do?" than to make you laugh out loud. Yet he does and you do, and his timing is right on the button and the script he writes for himself slides like a skate over ice from one aspect of a topic to another.

Will Black's eighty intermissionless minutes of non-stop ranting about the ridiculousness of the world we live in keep the house filled through Valentine's Day? Besides having to contend with the much publicized short attention span attributed to his target audience, the comedian needs to address several issues to maintain the initial momentum.

His routine needs freshening as is usual for a topical humor show. The January 10th show opened with a longish routine about Christmas and Chanukah. When he did this routine during his December 23rd Conan O'Brien appearance this was timely. Two weeks later, while still funny, it's day-old bread, or to be exact, 18-day-old bread that hardly warrants opening act status. There was one current bit about Sonny Bono which left Black caught between regret over the death but a sense that it was "just wrong!" to see his funeral broadcast on three major networks. This item from the week before aside, all the other material was hardly dripping with fresh ink. To be specific: A segment about the Heaven's Gate mass suicide and putdowns of weatherman Al Roker, John Tesch and Ross Perot. Black's definition of Democrats as "nice people with no ideas"who"blow" and Republicans as "nice people with bad ideas" who "suck" is another case of a joke-for-all-seasons.

The "Black Humor" truck should be stocked with a few flavors besides the scatological. Mr. Black seems intelligent enough to be less dependent on dumbed down language. so his heavy use of it comes off as a combination of taking the easy way out or not respecting his audience's intelligence

While Mr. Black does connect with the audience in the sense of making them laugh, except at the very beginning he seems to be avoiding eye contact or the kind of me-to-you link that really pulls people in.

Perhaps the frequent stumbles I heard were caused by opening night jitters. Still, Black, who explains that he spends a lot of time at the theater reading his "set" because he "lives in a shitty apartment" would have done better concentrating on getting his lines letter perfect.

Written and Performed by Lewis Black
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St, off 7th Av. So (212/239-6200)
12/31/97-2/14/98;opened 1/10/98
reviewed 1/12/98 by Elyse Sommer

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