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THEATER REVIEW : The Sad Side of Comedy : 'Lou's on First' at Group Repertory explores the real-life demons faced by the famed team of Abbott and Costello.

March 31, 1995|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times.

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who transferred the style of their burlesque and vaudeville routines to the movies and helped save Universal Studios in the process, were indelible comics to anyone who went to movies in the 1940s, which was everyone.

Abbott and Costello happily came along between Laurel and Hardy and Martin and Lewis, a clown and straight man for the home front whose malapropisms and other verbal skits, such as their famous "Who's on first?" number, became the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Now the stage premiere of Edwin Gordon's "Lou's on First," at Group Repertory Theatre, re-creates the turbulent and halcyon years of Abbott and Costello. The chief focus is on Costello, uncannily played by Van Boudreaux, whose rumpled pudginess, high squeaky voice and body language, down to his nervous hands and fingers, is a striking impression of the corpulent comic.

Also casting a solid reflection is Christopher Winfield's dour, taller and thinner Abbott, whose role in this play approximates his deceptive second-banana role in the Abbott and Costello movies. Physically, Winfield's achievement is Abbott's voice, always on the verge of an impatient snarl if not anger, whether he's performing or not.

But there's more than mere physical impressions going on here. Being a show-biz story, naturally there are demons to face. In this case it's Abbott's drinking and cynical veneer (the rest of him is a mystery), and Costello's reckless spending, gambling and less-than-perfect role as husband to a worried, meek wife and mother (Shauna Bloom), who has trouble fitting in with Costello's boisterous crowd and privately takes to the bottle.

Beyond Jerome Guardino's direction of the delicious re-creation of several of the comics' verbal skits on radio and sound stages (such as a race track "mudder" being confused with "mother" and "fodder" with "father"), there's a sadness that permeates the play. For instance, the lifelong effect on Costello of the tragic drowning of his only son, the 1-year old Butch, in the Costello family pool on Longridge Avenue in Sherman Oaks in 1943, hovers like a ghost over much of the second act.

*

The pair of comics, whom we first meet after they have passed on, tell their story in a style more surreal than real. Running characters in their lives, such as the Andrews Sisters, stripper Ann Corio (the towering Pat Sturges), Vegas dancers, vaudeville comics (notably the inimitably funny Philip McKeown), agents and Costello's grim, possessive mother (Bethany Carpenter), pop in and out of the play, alternately bursting through panel doors in a bare white room that suggests a surreal patch of afterlife.

The nicest touch of all is literally the perfect ending (following Costello's death in 1959) when Boudreaux and Winfield rejoin on what we've all been waiting for: the "Who's on first . . . What's on second" gem, which is flawlessly delivered.

The playwright's main source material is a biography, also called "Lou's on First," written by Costello's youngest daughter, Chris Costello. (Both she and Abbott's 99-year-old-sister, Olive Abbott, attended opening night.)

Where and When

What: "Lou's on First."

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

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

Price: $13 to $15.

Call: (818) 769-7529.

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