S.J. Perelman - America's `Lampoon Laureate'

THEATER: REVIEW

S.J. PERELMAN IN PERSON One-man play by Bob Shanks, based on the published works of S.J. Perelman. Directed by Ann Shanks. Starring Lewis J. Stadlen. At the Cherry Lane Theatre. `S.J. PERELMAN IN PERSON'' takes the stage in the person of Lewis J. Stadlen. An accomplished comic actor, Mr. Stadlen is well equipped to cope with the wild and wicked humors of a writer who has been called ``America's lampoon laureate.'' Lacking a physical resemblance to his subject, Stadlen interprets with his own histrionic skills the extracts from the Perelman canon compiled by Bob Shanks for the occasion and set in the 1950s.

Stadlen's Perelman first appears in slacks and jacket (neatly folded handkerchief in the breast pocket), as he launches the two-act monologue of reminiscences, fantastic verbal flights, and personal recollections of family, friends, colleagues, and adversaries. As the evening progresses, costume designer Leon I. Brauner provides the actor with appropriate changes of apparel, particularly of headgear. While the text is Perelman's, the treatment belongs to his interpreters.

If the Stadlen perception seems to an extent inspired by Groucho Marx, it may be because the actor portrayed that leering brother in ``Minnie's Boys'' and/or that Perelman wrote for the Marx Brothers. But the star of ``S.J. Perelman in Person'' gets ample opportunity to display his versatility in subordinate cameo roles. He responds equally to the impeccable prose and the irrepressible puns (``It shouldn't happen to a doge ... A martinet, which she thought was a musical instrument,'' etc.). Mr. Stadlen is at his broadest in a low comedy bit about Doctor Catspaw and Nurse Smedley (a voluptuous skeleton), and at his most frenetic as he portrays Perelman's desperate efforts to assemble a Christmas toy from instructions ``copied from the Rosetta stone.''

Although Mr. Shanks states (in a Playbill note) that it was his purpose to capture ``the true man ... a pixy with the power of absolute comedic nonsense,'' the compilation doesn't neglect the darker elements - the resentments and insecurities that lay beneath the comedy. Such aspects emerge in passing references to some of the celebrated personalities, like Groucho, who appeared in his Hollywood scripts, and, more poignantly in his reflections on his then neglected brother-in-law, novelist Nathanael West.

As a collaborative team, Shanks, director Ann Shanks, and Stadlen have created a lively impressionistic portrait that keeps faith with the unique Perelman comic spirit. Set designer Wes Peters has provided a brown study for the retrospective and Mal Sturchio has lighted it with a mellow glow.

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