Laugh till you cry, then laugh again

When it comes to comedy, Chico Cabaret is Only Kidding

DUDE, YOU’RE KILLIN’ ME! <br>Sal D’Angelo (Sean Green, center,) a coked-up, booze-swilling comedy club owner, makes an offer one of them can’t refuse to the comedy team of Jerry Goldstein (M. Conan Duch, left) and Tom Kelly (Brian Miner) in the Chico Cabaret production of <i>Only Kidding.</i>

Sal D’Angelo (Sean Green, center,) a coked-up, booze-swilling comedy club owner, makes an offer one of them can’t refuse to the comedy team of Jerry Goldstein (M. Conan Duch, left) and Tom Kelly (Brian Miner) in the Chico Cabaret production of Only Kidding.

Courtesy Of Chico Cabaret

We’ve all heard the clichéd generalization that comedians are tortured souls who ply their art to alleviate the horrors of existence or to blot out their memories of a painful childhood. Jim Geoghan’s Only Kidding, currently playing at Chico Cabaret, takes us backstage at three levels of the professional comedy business (at its mid-'80s peak) to provide several graphic demonstrations of exactly how horrible the lives of the people we pay to make us laugh can be. And it supplies the audience with quite a few heartfelt laughs in the process.

Seemingly over-the-hill standup hack Jackie Dwayne (Phil Ruttenburg) is the epitome of old-school show biz. A veteran of the 1950s Ed Sullivan Show, he has descended to the point of doing unpaid “showcase” gigs in Catskills Mountains resorts to maintain his fading career. Clad in a ruffled pink shirt, a steel-gray shark-skin suit and a salt-and-pepper Vegas pompadour, Dwayne sits behind a typewriter frustratedly trying to come up with some new material between sips of booze, the crumpled fruits of his labor scattered on the floor all around him.

Enter Sheldon Kelinski, sent by Dwayne’s agent to help him through a writing session that might get Dwayne a shot at the Buddy King Show—the equivalent of getting a spot on Letterman or Leno for today’s upcoming comics.

The session, to put it mildly, does not go well. Kelinski, played to writhing perfection by Bryan Finnigan, is a nervous wreck, tortured by memories of being intimidated by his alcoholic father. Dwayne is an apoplectic alcoholic spouting abusive diatribes and audience-hating observations. A bit that has the old comedian attempting to deliver a set of snappy one-liners that all get finished by the younger writer is a perfectly timed sequence that wrings genuine laughter from the tired jokes. The pair part on uneasy terms.

The second scene introduces us to two young comics having a post-set discussion in the basement dressing room of a lower-rung comedy club in New York City. Tom Kelly, played by Brian Miner, is a clean-cut, conscientious up-and-comer trying to analyze the performance and evaluate new material. His partner Jerry Goldstein is a self-loathing, tequila-gulping, pot-bellied guy with a greaser mullet, a goatee and a bad attitude who fantasizes aloud about the fast and glamorous women that will cluster around him once their team hits the big time. M. Conan Duch, as Goldstein, makes full use of his physical attributes to bring the vociferous and ruthless Goldstein to horrifically comic life. The pair does a fine riff that winds up with Kelly as Jerry Lewis and Goldstein as the poster boy for the Poor, Ugly, Jewish Telethon.

The comics are soon joined by the club owner, Sal D’Angelo, a semi-literate Mafioso wannabe, played by Sean Green, who also aspires to become a showbiz mogul by becoming a talent agent and manager. He knows somebody who knows somebody who might be able to get the team a shot at the Buddy King Show. Trouble is, he demands 30 percent as his fee. In a scene that combines cocaine, alcohol, sarcastic banter and physical comedy, the two comics illustrate how their ambitions diverge. And so they part.

The second act brings all five characters together three years later backstage at the Buddy King Show. Time and experience have transformed the characters’ lives without altering their fundamental personalities much, with the seeming exception of Jackie Dwayne, who has had a life-altering experience that has literally given him a new lease on life. The comedic highlight of the act is D’Angelo’s crassly vulgar and utterly hilarious rendition of a sexual fantasy involving the female rock star co-guest.

The emotional climax of the play occurs because of a struggle to see which comic will actually to go on and get his shot at the big time in front of a Buddy King audience. Ruttenburg displays a fine range of emotion as the scene evolves, and Duch, as the ruthlessly ambitious Goldstein, draws out the audience’s hostility like a melodrama villain. The whole thing ends on a brutal, poignant, funny, oddly upbeat note that will leave you with a memory of laughter mingled with pain that gets to the heart of comedy by illuminating the sad stereotypes that make it up.