YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Inflicting herself with the acid test

Flinger of barbs in stand-up and red carpet critique, Joan Rivers now lays herself and her story on the line.

February 10, 2008|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

"Oh! Can we talk?! Oh!"

The Hollywood wannabe launching into a spontaneous impression of Joan Rivers isn't really looking for an answer -- not that there's anyone around to respond to him if he was. He's on a roll, prancing around, firing off signature zingers about bad sex and Elizabeth Taylor's eating habits. He's so wrapped up in his raspy Rivers rant that he doesn't notice when the genuine article enters the room, killing him not-so-softly with her glare.

Actually, the Rivers coldly regarding the faux Joan is a bit of a poser too. It's "Joan Rivers" as portrayed by the real-life title character and creator of "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress," opening this week at the Geffen Playhouse.

The spectacle of Joan Rivers playing Joan Rivers watching a character portraying Joan Rivers' assistant doing a Joan Rivers impression (and that's not even the punch line) is part of a brief comic bit in the new play, a mash-up of Hollywood insider memoir, backstage romp and dramatic leap into some of the rawest, most emotional periods of the 74-year-old's life.

"My lawyer said a few years ago, 'I'm begging you, don't do this,' " Rivers said after a recent rehearsal. "But then I think that just made me work hard- er on the monologues."

To be sure, there's no shortage of the barbed, caustic humor that has been at the center of Rivers' act for more than four decades. But this time around, she has left herself more exposed than usual. The intensely personal nature of the project has landed the veteran entertainer simultaneously in a territory of strength and vulnerability.

When the run-through concludes with the last joke -- Rivers can't seem to get out of the dressing room -- the small group of invited guests responds with reassuring applause and whoops. Yet despite the "very, very nice job" pronouncement from director Bart DeLorenzo, Rivers appears slightly uncertain, managing only a half-smile.

"Please, God, let this work," she said quietly. "I really, really want this to be funny. I really want this to work."

Stalking the red carpet

"AWork IN PROGRESS" is set during the chaotic moments before an awards show. Rivers' character is patterned after the notorious "Who are you wearing?" red carpet interviewer who has alternately delighted and frightened fashion-conscious celebrities for more than 10 years. The rest of the cast consists of a makeup artist (Emily Kosloski) and the personal assistant (Adam Kulbersh), as well as a demographic-conscious network executive (Tara Joyce). Supplementing the proceedings are video montages showing some of Rivers' greatest hits -- and misses -- on the red carpet.

(Kosloski replaces original cast member Yosefa Forma, who was fired just a few days before previews. Said Rivers: "It was horrible -- the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. It was a nightmare. I've been there. But with Emily, the tone changed to what we wanted.")

The briskly paced one-act puts Rivers in hyperdrive, prowling the stage, contorting, gesturing wildly, crawling. It's a physical and emotional effort that might drain performers half her age, but she still bubbles with energy after the intense 90-minute rehearsal. Only her voice and body language register several degrees below the brash, take-no-prisoners persona on display just minutes before.

In her hands, a script is covered with purple Post-its, marking material that has been added in the last few weeks. She repeatedly asks DeLorenzo what he thinks of several new jokes: "Really, really, does it flow? Does it work?" The director mentions a particular foul-mouthed barb aimed at Suzanne Somers, shaking his head as if he can't quite believe the audacious tone. Rivers' half-smile becomes fuller. For a moment, it's as though she is just another member of the company seeking feedback, rather than the dynamo at the center of it all.

But her relentless tinkering is an indication of how "A Work in Progress" represents more than just a time-killer between jewelry-selling gigs on QVC or another round of cosmetic surgery.

After all, she is performing in the same city where many of the incidents in the play took place. Rivers fled L.A. more than 20 years ago for New York after a series of catastrophes: her fallout with friend and "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson, the cancellation of her talk show on the fledgling Fox network, the suicide of her husband, Edgar.

That recognition has upped the stakes. In fact, preparations for opening night have consumed Rivers. She recites her lines at home, morning and evening. And she adds jokes almost every day. "I think of them in the shower," she said.

Los Angeles Times Articles