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‘Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson’ Opens on Broadway

October 15, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ Rowan Atkinson is a young, rubber-faced comedian who is a big star on British television. He’s also something of a phenomenon in London’s West End where his one-man show was a sellout and where his performance kept a minor Larry Shue comedy called ″The Nerd″ running for six months.

Now a series of his sketches, written mostly in collaboration with Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, have been transplanted to Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater where ″Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson″ opened Monday night.

American audiences probably will wonder what the fuss is all about. While Atkinson is an accomplished and funny performer, much of his obvious material wouldn’t pass muster on ″Monty Python’s Flying Circus,″ or even with that slob prince of British balminess, the unsinkable Benny Hill. On Broadway, with a $35 top ticket price, it definitely seems out of place.

What works best in this mixed bag of a show is the physical comedy. Atkinson, who looks like a slightly stretched version of Dudley Moore, manages to create more with the twist of his head or the raising of an eyebrow than with any amount of dialogue.

His most interesting character is a little nebbish of man, an English cousin of Jackie Gleason’s Poor Soul. In one of the evening’s best sketches, he attempts to modestly put on a bathing suit at a public beach. It’s fun watching Atkinson’s embarrassment and contortions as he pulls a bright orange swim suit over his trousers and then attempts to take off the pants.

The same character also appears during a Sunday church service and proceeds to make a shambles of the ecclesiastical proceedings. He blows his nose, attempts to eat a piece of candy, falls asleep and tries to sing along with the congregation despite not knowing the words to the hymn. It’s silly and endearing fun.

What misfires are many of the more traditional skits. An obnoxious lounge lizard - a cabaret performer of no discernible talent - appears for some unexplained reason in both acts. He sings songs that are as tuneless as they are unfunny. Atkinson can’t do much with the role.

A low point is reached during a sketch about an obsequious waiter in an Indian restaurant. The harried man has to deal with a group of drunken customers. It’s mean-spirited and condescending especially to the waiter played with a certain desperation by Atkinson.

In many of the sketches, the star is ably supported by sidekick Angus Deayton, a likable and unobtrusive Tonto to Atkinson’s more flamboyant Lone Ranger.

Director Mike Ochrent, responsible for the smash hit musical ″Me And My Girl,″ pretty much leaves Atkinson alone, letting him do what he wants and getting him from sketch to sketch as quickly as possible.

Will Bowen has designed a series of red framed boxes that serve as an acceptable backdrop for the action. It’s the type of scenery that would work perfectly on television, which is where most of ″Atkinson at the Atkinson″ belongs.

Frank Rich, reviewing the show in today’s editions of The New York Times, said the performance ″is interminable proof that the melding of American and English cultures is not yet complete.″

Rich called the writing ″stunningly predicatable,″ the acting mediocre and the jokes, at best, ″potentially funny.″

Howard Kissel of the Daily News said Atkinson was at times extremely funny, calling him ″a welcome diverting comic voice.″

Kissel said that although much of the actor’s humor is silly, revealing an obsession with toilets and the alimentary canal, the show was fun.

The New York Post’s Clive Barnes said he loved the performance.

″The man is funny. Very funny. Hilarious. Sidesplitting,″ Barnes wrote in today’s editions. He called the evening ″an opportunity to meet and enjoy a new and genuinely zany man.″

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