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The Pee-Wee Herman Show – Los Angeles Theater Review  

 

THE TRIUMPH OF SPOILED BRATHOOD 

 

picture - The Pee-Wee Herman ShowTheater Review 

by John Topping 

published January 24, 2010 

 

The Pee-Wee Herman Show 

now playing in Los Angeles at Club Nokia 

through February 7 

 

At the beginning of The Pee-Wee Herman Show, there is a bit of discomfort, maybe even sadness, that might sweep through you.  Not that the star, Paul Reubens, has had to survive the embarrassing legal complications that toppled his career;  but that, even after all of this time, he plays the character of Pee-Wee so well that you get the feeling that he's trapped in infantilism.  Kind of icky.  Then there is that increasingly familiar feeling – perhaps you felt it if you saw Monty Python's Spamalot – that all of the laughs (even if funny) are unearned, because the theater is full of hardcore fans who will burst out cheering  at anything, as if boisterous joviality were a hyperventilation technique that keeps a cherished memory alive.  And then there is the theater itself, Club Nokia, never designed for the kinds of shows with actors and sets, it seems, but only to watch bands, where most people will not get overly upset that the seats with obstructed views – of which they have an abundance – are blocking the drummer and other band members, so long as the front man (or woman) is downstage center.   

 

picture - The Pee-Wee Herman ShowAmazingly, The Pee-Wee Herman Show survives all of these obstacles.  Since I related to so much of the humor, I had to confront myself – not Pee-Wee or Paul – about any emotionally stunted growth I was suffering.  I enjoyed myself way too much to cast the onus on him.  The all-too-forgiving laughter of the hardcore fans in the audience was soon drowned out by my own genuine, perhaps even aggressive, guffawing.  It's probably the funniest thing I've seen on stage since Boeing, Boeing.  As for the theater – well, there's simply not a good seat in the house.  Even the balcony's front-row VIP seats have obstructed views (weird); and the smaller number of main-floor seats, for which the show is really staged, looked like fold-out chairs from the perch of my aerie. 

 

If you've ever seen Pee-Wee's Playhouse, you'll be familiar with most of the characters, or your memory will be jogged soon enough.  Pee-Wee, dressed in a suit and bow-tie that makes him look like a ventriloquist's doll, lives in a magical house on a children's television show – if this was not your own personal dream when you were 5 years old, it's one that you undoubtedly would have settled for (otherwise, this show is decidedly not for you).  All of the furniture, not to mention the flowers, the map-of-the-USA clock, his life-size toy robot, and other anthropomorphic odds and ends, are alive and talk to him as he receives human visitors all day long.   

 

picture - The Pee-Wee Herman ShowUnbeknownst to many audience members, this is actually a revival of the show that preceded his TV series (as well as his feature films), originally staged in 1980 and aired on HBO in 1981.  In this extended pilot episode, as it were, the life lesson Pee-Wee learns concerns the generosity of giving away his one wish to have someone else's wish come true.  He's majorly bummed out by his reluctant magnanimity because, more than anything else in the world, he wishes he could fly, and no matter how much it may have enriched someone else's life, he feels he wasted his wish.  The balance of adult material disguised as children's material is hilariously impeccable, and it's oddly refreshing that he's so in touch with his selfish side that he regrets his act of charity. 

 

Hanging on that plot is a virtual checklist of a certain generation's training ground of sarcasm and one-up-manship ("I know you are but what am I?;"  "A: I love [ice cream, for example].  B: Then why don't you marry it?;" "I'm rubber, you're glue; whatever you say to me … (etc.)."  If that sparks nostalgia from your childhood, Pee-Wee Herman invites you to revisit it, indulge in it, wallow in it like a sugary chewy chocolatey snack filled with lumps of yummies that does your body no favors but tastes so delicious.  If you sit back far enough (and, chances are, you will), you won't even notice the 20 or so years that Reubens has aged since we last recognized him.   

 

picture - The Pee-Wee Herman ShowThe next stop for The Pee-Wee Herman Show ought to be a limited Broadway engagement; it would fit in perfectly, it's tried, tested, and true, and it's ready to roll (not to mention that it's infinitely better than some of the sorry hits and misses that pass through there). We may have to settle instead for a Pee-Wee movie due to be released in 2011. But never mind that now. Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee is back; and his detractors have either forgiven him, forgotten him, or chosen to ignore him. And that's all good news for the rest of us. 

 

johntopping @ stageandcinema.com 

 

photos by Ed Krieger and Jeff Vespa

 

 
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