April 29, 1996

Theater: Fast Lane to Comedy -
It's Still a Funny Thing
Written by Jack Kroll

The marquee above New York's St. James Theatre bears a cartoon of Nathan Lane in ancient Roman togs lugging a huge FORUM.  In logo veritas.  Lane does carry the new revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Not that there's no other talent in the show, but it's Lane, in his first full-fledged starring role on Broadway, who's the engine of the enterprise.  From the first moment, when he received a tremendous ovation, to the end, Lane is hardly off the stage, mugging, miming, singing, scheming, leching and kvetching.  Such shenanigans have hardly been seen since . . . well, since Zero Mostel in the original 1962 production.  Mostel was larger than life; Lane is life.  As the slave Pseudolus, he's the classic little guy of comedy through the ages, trying to beat the system that's screwing him.  Plotting to win his freedom by bagging Philia, the last virgin in the house of procurer Lycus, for his lovesick young master Hero, Pseudolus triggers a farcical plot of quantum complexity.

The show's book, brilliantly crafted by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, went back to the plays of Plautus, who wowed 'em in 200 B.C.  This is primal low comedy, with pratfalls, pratgags, guys in drag, screeching eunuchs, superbimbos who melt the starch from political correctness with Rob Marshall's hip-dislocating choreography.  Staged by Jerry Zaks, this cheerful vulgarity seems innocent in our age of foul-mouthed comedy.  Stephen Sondheim's score hits it peak in the opening number, "Comedy Tonight," a marvelous mini-show in itself.  Mark Linn-Baker, Lewis J. Stadlen, Ernie Sabella and William Duell are expert comics, but Lane is no mere expert.  A wacky Everyman, he puts you in touch with your inner clown.