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A Comic Comes Home : 'Lou's on First' explores the emotional essence of the famed acting duo. The North Hollywood play pays homage to Costello's Valley heritage.

March 24, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Lou Costello can't seem to get out of the Valley. Alive and dead, the cherubic, comic half of Abbott and Costello seems to haunt this place.

The studio that signed the team with what was in 1940 one of Hollywood's most lucrative contracts was Universal. Costello bought and expanded a house on Longridge Avenue in Sherman Oaks for his growing family. He later bought a ranch at Whitsett Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard, and then another ranch in Canoga Park on Fallbrook Avenue.

While his parents lived on Coldwater Canyon Boulevard just south of Ventura, other relatives lived on Valley Vista. Just before his death in 1959, Costello's family lived in an apartment on Ethel Avenue in Studio City, while a new hillside home was being readied on Longridge Terrace.

Costello's funeral was held at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Sherman Oaks, where his young son Butch's funeral had been held after his tragic drowning in 1943.

Now Costello--or a theatrical facsimile of him--is back. Edwin Gordon's biographical play-with-music, "Lou's on First," opens tonight in a corner of Costello's old neighborhood--North Hollywood--at Group Repertory Theatre.

Neither Gordon nor director Jerome Guardino acknowledges that Costello's Valley heritage had anything to do with Group Rep being the home for the play's premiere production.

"I would have had this done anywhere," says Gordon, 70, who has been in a wheelchair since he suffered a stroke last year. "Anywhere, that is, where it would be done right."

This marks the third attempt to get it done right. The first was an unsuccessful New York backers' audition for the Nederlander Corp. in the mid-1980s; the second, an aborted production during the same period at the New Jersey-based Whole Theatre Company.

Indeed, Gordon's first draft in 1982 was, by his estimate, "a pedestrian, standard, beginning-to-end bio play," partly based on the biography, also titled "Lou's on First," by Costello's youngest daughter, Chris.

Guardino, who first encountered the script in 1986, spotted the seeds of something less pedestrian in one of the play's many faithfully preserved Abbott and Costello routines--specifically, the pair's "Crazy House" skit.

Guardino, 71, recalls saying to Gordon then, " 'What if we started the whole play in Crazy House, where both of them have passed out of this world, and then Lou reviews his life from there? Bud doesn't want him to go back, but Lou feels compelled to.' "

"This really broke open the play in a new direction," says Gordon, as he and Guardino sit together on the Group Rep stage, "and it gained a kind of musical form with skit breaks. But the skits take on a brand new meaning."

"I am absolutely amazed at what Ed did with what's very familiar comedy material," Guardino interjects. "He refashioned the skits so they reveal more about the characters we've met--like Lou's mother, who suddenly becomes an intrusive telephone operator. The bits aren't straight; they're surreal."

Was Chris Costello surprised at the fantastical direction the play has taken?

"Well, once Ed explained it to me," she says, by telephone, "I was really pleased by it. Ed talked with me closely about the facts of our family, but most important was getting the manner and behavior right. I was especially sensitive that my mother wasn't depicted as some kind of stumbling drunk, because she wasn't. She had real problems with the bottle, but she was always a lady."

Though puzzled and disappointed that the past production efforts of "Lou" fell through, Chris, 47, a free-lance corporate publicist in Burbank, feels that the time is now right for the show.

"Abbott and Costello have never been more popular than now," she says, citing the growth in fan clubs, the fact that her book (written with Raymond Strait) remains in print, and last year's broadcast of "Jerry Seinfeld Meets Abbott and Costello"--a kind of valedictory by Seinfeld of the team's profound influence on his comedy.

"Jerry told me," says Chris, "that it's only my dad and Bud who managed to preserve the old burlesque comedy act and bring it into film and radio. Without them, that whole comedy style would have been lost forever."

So, "Lou's on First" serves to further the Abbott and Costello preservation project. But where do you find actors to play the team?

Right in the Group Rep company, it turns out. Guardino says that Christopher Winfield, as Bud, and Van Boudreaux, as Lou, "are the real thing. We couldn't have done it here without that casting. No way."

And when the stout, grinning Boudreaux, wearing Lou's patented bowler hat, comes up to shake your hand, the resemblance is a bit startling.

"But, you know, this can't just be a look-alike show," says Guardino. "Ed wrote too deeply, (in the) play, for just an impersonation. I told Chris and Van that it was a lot more important for them to get the emotional essence of these men than that they mimic them perfectly."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Runs indefinitely.

Price: $15 general, $13 for seniors, students and members of actors' unions.

Call: (818) 769-7529.

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