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THEATER REVIEW : Chaotic Comedian Enlivens Kanter's 'Laughing Matters'

March 18, 1994|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say the title, "Laughing Matters." You can change the meaning by emphasizing either the first word or the second. In Hal Kanter's show at the Westwood Playhouse, the emphasis is on the laughing.

This is primarily laughter for laughter's sake.

Kanter has assembled four comics and thrown himself into the mix as the emcee. Unfortunately, he also tossed in an awkward first scene in which three of the comics play themselves, schmoozing "backstage" before performing at a fictional Los Angeles benefit.

Besides cracking jokes, the three comics--Marty Brill, Hank Garrett and Jackie Kahane--discuss the tardiness and other legendary habits of a fictional colleague, one Freddie Sherman. This waiting-for-Freddie gag is supposed to provide an ongoing theme--an embryonic narrative, even--but it goes nowhere. The first scene establishes only that these men are not actors. They need the microphone, and they need to address the audience, not one another.

But hang in there until the show itself begins, and you're likely to find the laugh meter moving up.

Kanter opens with remarks from behind a lectern at the side of the stage. He looks urbane, but he doesn't let this stand in the way of indulging in lowbrow material, and the contrast between his distinguished looks and the sillier jokes provides some of the comedy. Kanter doesn't try to hide the fact that he's reading from his notes. He makes his comedy writing so apparent that it's as if we're getting a close-up glimpse of the Hollywood gag machine at full speed.

Frizzy-haired Kahane is up next, and behind the mike he suddenly seems 20 years younger than he did in the opening sketch. Not that his material is so fresh; most of it is vintage Borscht Belt, and some of it specifically addresses the travails of being in his mid-60s. But the last part of his act, when he yanks the mike off the stand and prowls the front of the stage talking about bits of common but crazy behavior, is more contemporary in delivery as well as in theme.

After intermission, the burly Garrett comes out. Introduced as a master of dialects, he verifies that description with his act. But his material is musty, and his habit of grinning and giggling at his own jokes--endearing at first--soon becomes something to be endured.

The arrival of Frankie Pace, supposedly as the replacement for the unseen Freddie Sherman, enlivens the proceedings considerably. Pace is a wizard of uncanny sound effects and goofy sight gags involving simple props drawn primarily from the suitcase he carries. He flings jokes at the audience at such a quick, yes, pace that the laughs blend into each other and approach comic chaos. He leaves us wanting more, perhaps because he realizes how hard it would be to sustain that kind of momentum.

Finally, Brill concludes the evening, acknowledging how tough an act he has to follow, and he's right. His jokes are more topical than those of his predecessors, but they're not cutting-edge. In an age when Jay Leno and other late-night hosts crack a steady diet of political jokes, acts like Brill's don't add much. His reliance on ethnic jokes and gags about such comic has-beens as Jimmy Carter and Dan Quayle seems especially old-hat.

* "Laughing Matters," Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends April 17. $25. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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