Rosie O'Donnell's performance Tuesday at the Improvisation in Irvine provided a textbook example of how a strong, expressive delivery can make good material sparkle and lesser material seem better than it really is. And how, even in stand-up, playing against type yields intriguing (and pretty funny) results.
It also afforded a look at the curious instance of a comic starting off powerfully (she was on her way to a"killing," in stand-up parlance) but allowing the show to get away from her. By the standards of the set's first half, and some of her past shows, O'Donnell didn't wind up killing. But she still turned in a solid performance.
One of the reasons her show lost a little steam: She opened up her act and took a few chances on stage, primarily by interacting with the crowd (there was, among other things, a running chat with two women sitting together, both named Betty). And for that kind of flexibility and spontaneity, she scores major points, even if she didn't always score major laughs.
O'Donnell, who was a finalist for TV's "Starsearch" and who appeared on the TV sitcom "Gimme a Break," elicited big laughs early on with such bits as her observation on golf: "I don't think golf is a sport, technically. I think golf is just men in ugly pants--walking."
Not long after that--inserted between a sharp segment addressing the resentment kids feel toward stepparents and a lighter piece on bridal showers--came a vintage against-character throwaway. O'Donnell--who looks sweet and innocent and every bit the Irish lass her name suggests--suddenly segued onto the topic of middle act Ric Corso (whose set, by the way, was first rate), and evaluated his apparent sexual prowess.
Her comments drew a huge laugh, as did her other risque, sometimes slightly profane material. Contrasted with most Improv headliners, O'Donnell incorporates a larger proportion of blue stuff and four-letter words. But, Rosie being Rosie, it's more akin to a youngster's gleeful naughtiness over trying out swear words. To the audience, she was the cute little kid with a foul mouth that we find endearing when we probably should be disapproving. It works so well because we're in on it.
She also took us to another side of the wild kid-dom, where 4-year-old would-be comedians reside. When one of these pint-size Lenos tells a joke, "It takes about two hours, has no semblance or order, wanders aimlessly and you have to know when it's over," O'Donnell said, and at that point she became a 4-year-old monologuist.
The sketch has been a popular centerpiece of her act for a few years, and it clicks because of her knack for assuming assorted characters of all ages and backgrounds (and both genders), complete with gestures and dialects.
Some of her strengths were undermined a bit when she dipped into the generic grab bag of stand-up topics (the difficulties of using the loudspeaker to communicate at a fast-food outlet, how the audio and visual are never in synch in Japanese monster flicks, etc.).
And although her periodic conversations with the two Bettys and other members of the audience gave the set a slightly customized feel, they began to pay off less and less frequently. During some of these exchanges, she seemed to lose her rhythm. Or at least her momentum.
One would have thought she might keep some potent material on reserve, something she could use to help put herself back on track in this kind of situation (especially because she did just a 38-minute set, while most headliners go 45 to 60).
In any case, the tapering of energy and impact seemed as much circumstantial as it seemed to be a shortcoming on her part. Or, put another way: Given her talent, experience and the bulk of her material, on another night she just as easily could have regained her momentum. And killed.
O'Donnell, along with Corso and Tom Gilmore, continue at the Irvine Improv through Sunday.