'Serious Bizness': a fine and pure comedy

Serious Bizness. A comedy revue by Jennifer Allen, David Babcock, Don Perman, and Winnie Holzman. Directed by Phyllis Newman. Let's hear it for the modest entertainment. By ''modest'' I mean something that didn't cost $5 million to produce: a show that lives by its wits and wiles rather than by its spectacle. A musical accompanied by a piano or two or a well-attuned combo.

To be specific, a show like ''Serious Bizness,'' which takes the spelling of its title from George Bernard Shaw and its fine, fresh foolery from those aspects of the contemporary scene for which comedy is the only suitable treatment.

Having polished its material at other venues, ''Serious Bizness'' has settled down happily and hilariously at O'Neal's 43rd Street Cabaret, in what the show's publicist calls ''its first major theatrical engagement.'' That's fine with me. I'm only too glad to make the belated acquaintance of entertainers David Babcock , Jill Larson, Don Perman, and Nealla Spano. Messrs. Perman and Babcock wrote the comedy revue in collaboration with Jennifer Allen and Winnie Holzman. Phyllis Newman has staged the sketches and occasional songs with as much relish as if she were performing them herself. So it's cheers all round.

After a brief and breathless introduction, spoofing one of those clubs where stand-up comics try out, ''Serious Bizness'' gets down to comic business with a four-way phone conversation involving Ma Bell's answering machines, call-waiting buttons, and crossed wires. In an entertainment lasting a brisk 80 minutes or so , the intelligently funny quartet takes sure aim and a few potshots at the targets of opportunity provided by a mixed-up contemporary scene.

Flipping through some notes scribbled in the dark, I find more or less legible references to Mr. Perman's punning on Asiatic geography, Miss Spano as a sardonic bridesmaid who deplores serving carrot cake at a wedding breakfast, and Mr. Babcock and Miss Larson giving their histrionic all to voice an animated cartoon. Because of those mechanical breakdowns that seem to afflict classroom movies, the bespectacled Mr. Perman's educational film about ''Mister Tornado'' flickers in and out of the scene as he conducts a guided tour across hurricane America and its folkways.

Family-car outings, apres-ski encounters, child precocity, an art show, Perman and Babcock as male models at an ad photo session, the plight of the backup singer - all this and more is the stuff of ''Serious Bizness.'' I also admired Miss Spano as a radio disc jockeyette and Mr. Babcock as a British rocker (absolutely not punk) who performs a version of ''Daisy'' that grandmother wouldn't have recognized. Even though some of their payoff lines prove slightly predictable, the four performers carry the day for comedy and their on-target writers.

In case you are wondering how GBS got into the act, the title is borrowed from his reply to a critical woman: ''Madam, comedy is serious bizness.'' The entertainment at O'Neal's demonstrates that the ''bizness'' is best taken seriously by kindred blithe spirits. This is comedy with a master's degree in literacy. To complete the amenities, David Evans presides at the piano to furnish accompaniments and musical breaks. The production was neatly designed by Loren Sherman (set), Cynthia O'Neal (costumes), and Mal Sturchio (lighting).

O'Neal's itself creates a pleasant environment, notwithstanding the standard cabaret outfittings: minuscule tables, hard chairs, and minimal leg room. But the cheerful service is in the hands of a personable group of young waiters and waitresses - all of whom look as if they were about to be discovered by some enterprising impresario.

It is good to report that ''Serious Bizness'' is not the only current show to fulfill the criteria mentioned at the outset of this report. Here is a rundown of Off Broadway musicals that have made their marks and won their public: ''Forbidden Broadway'' (Palsson's on West 72nd Street); ''Little Shop of Horrors'' (Orpheum on lower Second Avenue); ''Preppies'' (Promenade on upper Broadway); ''Taking My Turn'' (Entermedia, lower Second Avenue); and, of course, the grandparent of them all, ''The Fantasticks'' (Sullivan Street Playhouse), now in its 24th uninterrupted year!

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