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‘Sally Marr ... and her escorts,’ Starring Joan Rivers, Opens on Broadway

May 6, 1994

NEW YORK (AP) _ Nobody tells a joke better than Joan Rivers, but jokes do not make a play. They make a club act.

A case in point is ″Sally Marr ... and her escorts,″ Rivers’ virtually one-woman show that opened Thursday at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. It’s a fan-magazine stage biography about the woman who gave birth to Lenny Bruce.

Being the mother of the iconoclastic comedian is Marr’s biggest claim to fame. She also was a stand-up comic herself, but never graduated beyond sleazy nightclubs and second-rate strip joints.

Rivers, the television home-shopping legend, not only stars in the play, but co-wrote it with Erin Sanders and Lonny Price. In this case, though, three heads are not better than one.

The show is a superficial and sentimental account of Marr’s life peppered with a fair amount of good jokes. The evening starts out promisingly enough with Rivers coming down the aisle of the theater - not unlike another formidable mother, Mama Rose, at the beginning of ″Gypsy″ - to conduct a class in stand-up comedy at a local high school. The character is frank, funny and boisterous, qualities Rivers can portray in her sleep.

Much of the play is told in flashback after Marr explains that she was raped - at the age of 82 - and then rushed to a hospital emergency room. That grim framework casts a pall over the rest of the production, which becomes a straightforward, resume-style account of Marr’s minor-key show business life. Don’t look for any insight here, just a relentless parade of details.

One major problem is the use of those ″escorts,″ who don’t even get capitalized in the play’s title. Three performers - two men and a woman - are mostly silent accomplices who assist Rivers in acting out Marr’s story.

They are on stage to react to Rivers’ two-act monologue as she works her way through Marr’s unhappy childhood, marriage and career. These department store mannequins dress up the stage, but contribute nothing to the story.

Co-author Price also directed, and he swirls these stick figures around with a certain amount of style. Yet after a while, their presence seems silly.

It’s especially frustrating when one of those mum actors impersonates Bruce. You long to hear some of the monologues that made him famous instead of what Rivers and her co-writers put on stage. Bruce remains even more of a mystery when the show is over.

The various show biz settings by William Barclay are appropriately tacky and there are some effective photo projections by Wendall K. Harrington that set up several scenes.

Rivers did create a real character when she went into Neil Simon’s ″Broadway Bound″ in 1988 to play the leading role of the unhappy wife and mother. Here, she can’t seem to get past her own powerful comic persona.

Not for a minute do you believe that Sally Marr is on stage. It’s ″Joan Rivers, Live on Broadway″ instead.

What other critics said:

David Richards, The New York Times: Is Ms. Rivers also a great actress? No, she is not. But she is exuberant, fearless and inexhaustible. If you admire performers for taking risks, then you can’t help but applaud her efforts.

Howard Kissel, Daily News: Whatever its conceptual weaknesses, the evening is a tribute to the relentless drive of two amazing women, the actress and her subject.

Clive Barnes, New York Post: (Rivers is) a little like Jackie Mason in drag. ... I just don’t like her - and, quite unlike Bruce, the show’s silent, reluctant hero, her whole act insists that you adore her.

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