I don’t usually find comics like Nick Kroll and John Mulaney funny. Cartoonish characterizations of grumpy old men in bad gray wigs and tastelessly grungy clothes delivering rat-a-tat repartee in Gilbert Gottfried growls? Not for me. But apparently for many others. Just witness the popularity of their “Oh, Hello” shtick on TV (the defunct “The Kroll Show”) as well as their current show both Off-Broadway (2015) and on. After seeing Oh, Hello on Broadway, even this grumpy old reviewer found them pretty funny. Only, I gotta say, not as rafter-shaking hilarious as those many others.
The endless stream of absurdist craziness begins the minute you see the Playbill page showing photos of the stars along with their understudies, John Slattery and Jon Hamm of “Mad Men.” Not mentioned there is the appearance at each show of some good-sport celebrity (fashion model Cara Delevigne—wearing oversized slippers with nipples at their toes—when I went) who gets an onstage interview; during it a humongous tuna sandwich descends, just one of a school of tuna jokes swimming through the show.
As fans know, Oh, Hello on Broadway features, not Kroll and Mulaney—each in his mid-30s—but their alter egos, septuagenarians Gil Faizon (Kroll), a Jewish actor from Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, and George St. Geegland (Mulaney), a novelist who’s written a book called Rifkin’s Dilemma. The premise is that Gil and George—whose idols include Steely Dan and Alan Alda—have been living for 40 years in a rent-controlled building at 73rd and Columbus on the Upper West Side, paying $75 a month. When their rent is boosted into the thousands, they’re evicted and move to Riverside Park until fortune once more smiles on them.
Of course, this is all nonsense, as is almost every nanosecond of the piece, which is played directly to the audience in the form of an autobiographical account of Gil and George’s weirdo lives. We’re asked to accept that George is writing a play (or a play-within-this-play) about George and Gil (using different last names) inside a setting glued together with scenic detritus from a New Jersey storage facility.
The mélange cleverly created by designer Scott Pask thus includes—among others—the front stairs and door from Bill Cosby’s TV show, a huge pillow with glass eyes they say is from The Pillowman, a staircase from an August Wilson play they can’t name, a trap door from The Diary of Anne Frank, and the beauty parlor from Steel Magnolias. A “No Exit” sign speaks for itself. Greatly assisting the visuals is Jake Degroot’s versatile lighting, supposedly being controlled by an unseen intern named Ruvi. (He too has a program bio, which notes that after applying for several internships he was assigned this show “due to clerical error.”)
The premise of the intermissionless nuttiness allows for endless comedic allusions to theatre conventions (like ambiguous tag lines under fading lights, the screaming of innocuous revelations, or a coughing character’s display of a bloody handkerchief) and Broadway trivia (the Lyceum itself gets a Liza Minnelli moment). Although carefully staged by Alex Timbers (Rocky, Peter and the Starcatcher), some bits seem improvised. Topical references make sure to include a certain presidential candidate, while a famous New York mayor gets a surprising moment in the spotlight. Playful asides include telling people in the bad seats to “get your tickets earlier or just make more money.”
Gil and George’s language constantly subverts expectations as ordinary remarks take extraordinary turns, inspiring yocks by their unexpectedness. There are simple malapropisms, like saying “home page” for “homage,” while many words are mispronounced by accenting the wrong syllable. Where Gil and George are concerned, the Marx Brothers can’t be far behind, although without this show’s scatological and raunchy humor. Even the Marxes never had a love affair with a raccoon, though, much less impregnated one.
Oh, Hello on Broadway
149 W. 45th St., NYC
Through January 8
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).