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Duo Aims for Fun in 'Canned Laughter'

November 30, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Jeanette Collins and Mimi Friedman are rarely at a loss for laughs.

Whether they're in character--as Dot and Sandra or Yango and Shu Ying or Verna and Velma or Ms. Petrescu and Ms. Pizzialli--or just being Jeanette and Mimi kibitzing over too-strong coffee at the breakfast table, or grabbing a ukulele and breaking into mellifluous song (as Friedman says, "Jeanette can harmonize with a farm animal"), the New York-based duo is always ready for a giggle.

Their current vehicle is "Canned Laughter," a 75-minute pastiche of comic sketches that has been playing weekends at the Cast Theatre (at 10:30 p.m.). Additional weeknight performances (at 8) begin Tuesday.

"We met five years ago in an improv class in New York," Friedman said. "The work was not just about getting laughs or suggestions from the audience, but the internal transitions of the characters we created. A lot of that was based on impulse and instinct. Jeanette and I just kept jumping up at the same time. Other people were great, but we had the same rhythms. And after the (group) disbanded--in spite of us!--we decided to keep working together. Really, there was no choice in the matter.

"A major part of what we do is listening," she continued. "Also, the laws of improv, which is what we work from, have to do with not saying no." Seconded her partner: "It's constantly supporting what the other person has created. If they say, 'It's a beautiful day,' you don't say, 'No, it's night.' It's also about having a positive approach to life, which Mimi and I share. We're very lucky that way. The chances of finding someone you like this much and work with this well are probably 5 million to 1."

Although they are the same age--33--on the surface at least, Friedman and Collins couldn't seem more dissimilar.

"Mimi's a Jewish girl from Texas and I was raised a Christian in Santa Barbara," Collins said, "so our culture is different that way." (Friedman quit journalism and theater studies at the University of Texas for the bright lights of Broadway; Collins' idea of being a high school outcast was "not being blond, cute and a cheerleader. OK, I was a cheerleader, but I had to sew my own skirt and it was ugly.")

"Really, the only problem we've had," Collins continued, "is in the leading/following situation, because I'm the bossy one. We used to do a scene about our mothers: Mimi's mother said, 'Why do you play those emotionally disturbed children?' and my mother said, 'Why does she always play those bossy characters?' "

Though they've dabbled in separate projects, the pair has spent the last five years mostly working together: in comedy clubs and writing/performing in industrial shows. ("We did one for a tire corporation," Collins noted. "How many rubber jokes can you make? More than you think.") Clearly, the current detour is a welcome one.

"We're both theatrically trained and oriented," Friedman stressed. "That's why we're so delighted to be out here--in a theater. Though we were always well received in New York, cabaret has a real stigma attached to it; it's not treated as theater, but variety." Here, says Collins, "it's a whole different atmosphere. People approach you differently. Also, we're looking forward to doing something for enough time, enough days a week, so that each show doesn't feel so precious. And we can relax, get comfortable with the audience."

The difference between coasts? "Just because of the nature of New York, having to survive there, people have their defenses up--and it takes longer to drop them," said Collins. "Here, it's not that way; there's much more of an immediate response and acceptance. But that's it. What we've learned from our audiences--in New York and Dallas and here--is that good is good. If it's strong, it can play anywhere. In the Catskills, there were really old people and really young people, and they all liked it. Everyone gets what they want from the show."

As do Collins and Friedman.

"Everything has pretty much been given to us," Collins admitted. "I'm not saying we haven't worked hard. But we didn't do nearly as well separately as we're doing together. As an actress nowadays, you've got to be able to sell yourself like you're selling the best product in the world. We both know that we're good, otherwise we wouldn't be doing this. Still, separately, we were not unique enough--in the eyes of the business--to sell ourselves. But what we have together is unique."

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