Robert Klein is one of our select American comedians who's successfully taken the higher road out of the comedy clubs and into the concert circuit. But as we see in his current run at the Henry Fonda Theatre, his focus has blurred.
This has nothing to do with age (Klein is 45). In fact, the richness of his experience may be running at odds with that of his audience, which tends to see its own lives standardized by an omnipresent media. It has more to do with just what Klein wants to communicate about the inner workings of our shared lives, as opposed to what he wants to tell us about being a star.
A star he's been. He's not going to let us forget his Tony nomination for "They're Playing Our Song," and his program bio is the longest in memory. But, except for selected sentimental asides about the Bronx of his childhood, he doesn't really want to let us in on his personal life so that we can identify with a struggle and an emergence; and he doesn't work up a body of topical middle-distance themes so that we're drawn together in a comedy of fresh or novel perceptions.
Klein is nothing if not a likable and facile performer. He did 10 minutes on just the height of the Fonda stage, which led to the fear of accident and a run on our litigious society ("Melvin Belli going around Bhopal handing his card out").
He segued to crime in New York; deregulated airline travel ("You can go to New York for $99 from L.A., but to San Diego it's $1,500"); his apprehension over the Tonys (an old joke: presenter reads "And the winner is-- not Klein"); Jim and Tammy Bakker (as if we need to hear any more on that score); and evangelists in general. In fact, he stretched a reference to Jimmy Swaggart into a joke on Swaggart's cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, " . . . who in 1961 married an embryo."
Klein works like a jazz musician, building his observations into riffs of opulent verbiage. We hear about Yom Kippur, about balding, about his octogenarian dad's punctuation of every other sentence with "Don't tell me." After intermission we hear about those ridiculous real-estate TV promos that lead you to think you can buy anything for nothing down (including the penitentiary you find yourself in), and a nicely worked-up piece about how George Washington's contemporary relevance is only as a reference for mattress sales.
One of Klein's skills is in how much he delivers in throwaway lines. But he looked like he was fighting a cold opening night, and the dreadful sound system at the Fonda made it seem as though he were talking into a tunnel.
There was a split second early on when he paused to listen to the audience, as if trying to gauge it. He never quite found the connection he was looking for, even if the old pro in him paced him through.
His rock 'n' roll and blues performance with the Bob Stein band (plus two female choristers) was most emblematic. It wasn't sharp enough of a parody to be really funny and it wasn't passionate enough to shift us into surrendering to another element of Klein's talent. It was almost like watching one of those dumpy middle-aged stars like Kenny Rogers play in a celebrity pro-am tennis tournament. They'd be unwatchable if you didn't know them from somewhere else.
What was missing from Klein's act? A responsiveness to the psychic conditions we as an audience are experiencing in a way we weren't five or even two years ago. There's no requirement for a comedian to harp on the Persian Gulf or Wall Street, but there is a requirement to read a common underlying mood. All great performers are accessories to the emotional fact. Robert Klein is doing his own thing up there, at his own end of a tunnel that's more than sonic.
Performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays 3 p.m. at the Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 410-1062, through Nov. 15.