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It Could Have Been A Wonderful Life

And the Tummler Rolls Along

Fred Raker’s solo show is an exorcism, a thinly veiled vehicle for nonstop impressions, a tribute to great comedians, and a poignant parable, all rolled into one. Riffing on the general shape of the Frank Capra holiday classic of similar title, Raker has crafted a tight, multi-layered, clearly autobiographical piece in which he charts his journey through the Show Biz School of Hard Knocks, exploring success and failure, Jewish identity issues, and his own spiritual transformation as an artist.

The show begins in Jewish Heaven, with Jack Benny complaining to a superior named Sidney about the lousy audiences in heaven. Sidney chastises Jack for his undue (albeit unwitting) influence on a certain failed comedian by the name of Phil Resnick, and gives Jack the chance to redeem himself by becoming a guardian angel and intervening in the unhappy trajectory of Mr. Resnick’s current life. Jack, eager to escape the relentless grind of his insufferable captive audience, jumps at the chance.

Mr. Raker proceeds to skillfully evoke vignettes of episodes in Phil Resnick’s life, playing all the parts: his dad, his grandfather, his agent, acting coaches, his Italian girlfriend, fellow comedians, plus a parade of superstar comedians and TV stars of a certain era: Johnny Carson, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Red Skelton, Peter Falk, Rod Steiger, Jimmy Stewart, and many others. Impressions, especially of the preceeding characters, are such threadbare Borsch-Belt fare that we can hardly pay attention to them anymore, but Mr. Raker delivers them with consummate élan, getting all the details right and weaving them into his story seamlessly. They become a large part of the show, as they should be -- most of these guys borrowed from and made fun of each other relentlessly, it’s part of the schtick.

Some of his funniest bits to me were his arch portrayals of auditions gone very wrong, and acting lessons with the ridiculous Chicky, wife of his slimy agent. His rendering of a smarmy, unctuous British director of a detergent infomercial is priceless. As Phil descends further and further into self hatred and envy while his sleazy buddy Skip Slater gets all the great gigs, he ends up spending most of his time watching John Bradshaw and his Healing the Shame that Binds routine -- Raker’s Bradshaw is quite funny. He’s also quite successful in creating the impression of multiple characters, this becomes most intriguing when he’s acting out a love scene with his future wife, Annie. They’re getting cozy and close and I’m thinking “Interesting. How is he going to kiss himself?”

Another thing I liked about the show was all the Yiddish words, like tummler and shiksha and tuchis , used to great effect by Mr. Raker. Even for totally West-Coast goyim like me, there’s just something so deliciously expressive about Yiddish. Take tummler, for instance. Dictionary.com defines it thus: “1. a male entertainer, as formerly employed by resorts in the Catskill Mountains, who combined the duties of a comedian, activities director, and master of ceremonies to keep the guests amused throughout the day. 2. any lively, prankish, or mischievous man.” The word also brings up images of the troubadour, the traveling minstrel whose stock in trade is very long stories and news items set to music. Somehow the tummler seems to be the modern version of this -- a trickster, storyteller, “lively and prankish”, perhaps unfairly burdened with the Sisyphean task of entertaining a captive, bovine audience, whether it be in the Catskills or a nursing home or, as in Phil’s case, viewers of a small town public television station.

I’m hoping to not sound condescending by saying this, but I greatly appreciated the “craft” of Mr. Raker’s performance. By that I mean the careful attention to structure, detail, sequence, and material. The mental effort alone in memorizing al that dialogue (the show is 75 minutes long) always seems to me to be monumental, but it’s important to remember that much of our cultural intelligence is pre-literary. Stories have been passed along for millennia in much the same way- with acting and singing as mnemonic devices that help with the task of memorization.

Phil Resnick eventually becomes despondent and, leaving the house on Christmas Eve, unwittingly bumps into his guardian angel Jack Benny, who, fulfilling his task, sets about magically transforming Phil into the “success” he thinks he wants to be. Phil then stumbles around, getting horrifying glimpses of how his life would have turned out had he become like Skip Slater, with his dreadful dreck "What’s Up With That America?", the wildly successful TV show. Phil comes to his senses, asks for his former life back, and rushes gratefully back into the arms of his loving wife and family, just like in the Capra film.

One senses a very personal story in Raker’s show -- the similarity between his name and that of the main character, the broken dreams of success, the flight from Hollywood, the eventual settling down. Whatever the actual failures in his life he may or may not be dealing with in this piece of theatre, it’s something to be proud of – a long running, successful solo show in a major theater market. Think of all the big film stars who yearn to be doing meaningful, intimate small theater like this. This modern tummler (and I use that term in the nicest way ) has dealt with his demons in a very healthy way, and made it fun for the rest of us in the process.

It Could Have Been A Wonderful Life with Fred Raker
at the Phoenix Theatre
Runs through Dec. 24
Tickets: $25