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THEATER REVIEW

Right timing for born-again sketches

In strong performances, Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney resurrect their winning material from decades past.

March 01, 2004|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

The title says it straight: "Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo's Greatest Hits." Most of the comedy sketches at the Canon Theatre were born and attained hit status years ago.

Like devotees of an '80s rock group, the fans of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney start applauding or even squealing at the first hint of a familiar riff.

Seven sketches are from the duo's '80s claim to fame, "Parallel Lives," and one is from their '90s show "The Dark Side." Two sketches are brand new, although some rewriting has taken place in others.

The material isn't uniformly wonderful, but the performances are as strong as ever. Under the direction of Mark Brokaw, Najimy and Gaffney display the same sense of timing and comic communion that they had two decades ago.

They still play teenagers in one sketch -- in which Annette and Gina, Italian American girls, think deep thoughts about "West Side Story" and their boyfriends and life. Najimy and Gaffney make no cosmetic or costumed attempts to pass as teenagers, relying instead on their words and their acting to effectively conjure up those salad days. If anything, the age discrepancy provides an added layer of comedy.

On the other hand, one of the new sketches might work better with real costumes -- and additional actors. The two women play a half-dozen mothers of animated Disney characters at a mutual support group. The moms complain about the short shrift they got in the Disney movies, which tend to focus on motherless protagonists. Najimy and Gaffney delineate the characters fairly well, but the sketch feels like an opportunity for them to show off at the expense of some of the comedy. It might be twice as funny with wild costumes on a larger troupe of sketch actors.

The other new sketch isn't wholly successful either. On one side of the stage, Gaffney plays a woman who is downscale enough to be washing her clothes at a laundromat, even as she contemplates giving herself a Botox injection as a present. On the other side of the stage, Najimy plays a divorced Beverly Hills matron having her nails done in an upscale salon.

The two characters take turns doing snippets of monologues, without interacting. But Gaffney's character makes more memorable observations and is about to take some action, as opposed to Najimy's cliched matron, who is simply soaking in her own bitterness.

Two angels open each act of the show. At first, they're discussing how to create human society; later, they're contemplating the results. This material is as funny as ever and includes the show's most topical moment, a reference to same-sex marriages.

A segment about menstrual periods is still clever, if hardly novel, and a sketch about barflies Hank (Najimy) and Karen Sue (Gaffney) is an evergreen. But a rerun of a piece about an abortion clinic shooting comes off as somewhat contrived.

A segment that closes the first act begins well, as two aging heterosexuals attend a field trip to a lesbian nightclub as part of their women's studies course, and one of them (Najimy) discusses a gay nephew whose partner has AIDS. But the jokes about vegetarian cuisine and lesbian performance art are dated.

"Afterbirth" fits well into the Canon. But after Najimy and Gaffney take their show to New York, the Canon will be demolished to make way for higher-priced real estate. For more than 25 years, it has hosted intimate live performance in a high-profile location, and it will be missed.

*

'Afterbirth'

Where: Canon Theatre, 205 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.

Ends: March 21

Price: $50-$55

Contact: (310) 859-2830

Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

By Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Set by Allen Moyer. Lighting by Mary Louise Geiger. Costumes by Ellen McCartney. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Vernon Willet.

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