He called her Gilbert. She called him Zweibel, accent on the “bel.” She became one of the most famous, funniest, and most beloved comediennes of the 1970s. He wrote for the TV show that made her a star and later co-created a hit TV sitcom. They loved each other for fourteen years, though each married others. They were the best of friends until her untimely death. She was Gilda Radner. He is Alan Zweibel. Bunny Bunny—Gilda Radner: A Sort Of Romantic Comedy, now playing at the Falcon Theatre, is the delightfully funny, affectionately written, and exquisitely directed and performed tale of two lives intertwined.
Gilda (Erin Pineda) and Zweibel (Brendan Hunt) meet cute and share an instant connection at a Saturday Night Live audition when she asks, “Can you help me be Julie Andrews’ parakeet?” leading to a delicious skit in which Gilda and an imaginary parakeet sing a duet, one which begins with the opening of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music and ends with Ike and Tina’s “Rollin’ On The River.” One of them is “sort of not really seeing someone” and the other just got out of “sort of not seeing someone.” No matter. Soon a friendship begins, which promptly turns to love, though unfortunately for the hopelessly hooked Zweibel, Gilda soon informs him that “You’re a guy and guys leave me,” thereby ending any hope of romance. The friendship, however, endures.
Highlights among Bunny Bunny’s many hilarious scenes include watching Gilda help Zweibel pay back his high school nemesis in a sequence which features Gilda in a Meg Ryan/When Harry Met Sally moment; Zweibel doing his darnedest to tick Gilda off by proposing a “series of sketches over a very, very long period of time…for Laraine (Newman)”; and a memorably “fowl-mouthed” Gilda singing dirty in “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals,” from Gilda Live. But Zweibel’s 1997 off-Broadway comedy (based on his ’94 memoir) is not all fun and laughter. There is Gilda’s long struggle with bulimia, a touching scene in which she tells Zweibel “I wish I didn’t have to be funny to get people to love me,” and of course, her final, courageous battle with ovarian cancer.
Gilda Radner’s spirit lives on twenty-five years after her untimely passing in Pineda’s spectacular star performance, the statuesque beauty channeling gangly, gorgeous Gilda in a performance that pays loving, hilarious homage without a single hint of caricature. Not only is Pineda every bit as funny as Gilda was all those years ago, the depth the brings to the play’s final scenes will likely have you likely wiping away as many tears as streamed down this reviewer’s cheeks.
As Zweibel, Hunt matches his Scenie-winning Best Lead and Featured Actor performances in Absolutely Filthy and Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake) while proving that he can be as subtly brilliant as he was outrageously so in those Sacred Fools star turns. In addition, Hunt has terrific chemistry with Pineda, the two of them forming a couple that the audience can’t help but root for even as Gilda kept them resolutely best friends without benefits.
UCLA grad Tom Fonss completes the cast every bit as sensationally as its two stars, playing every single one of Bunny Bunny’s several dozen supporting characters including a waiter, a TV camera, a girlfriend, a fishmonger, a naked man, a train conductor, Andy Warhol, a New York cabbie, Gene Wilder, Garry Shandling, Zweibel’s bride, John Lennon in an elevator (in one of the evening’s funniest—and apparently true—scenes), and an utterly dazzling rapid-fire series of New York Knicks fans.
Dimitri Toscas directs with abundant flair, keeping Bunny Bunny’s two lead performances rooted in truth and insuring a seamless segue from comedy to tragedy.
Adam Flemming’s inspired projections flash onto the multi-sized hanging screens that make up the greater part of his simple but effective scenic design and transport us all about New York and Hollywood. (Rarely have a table and two chairs done so much in two hours.) Jeremy Pivnick lights masterfully (what else?) while Robert Arturo Ramirez’s sound design proves equally expert. Costume designer Terri A. Lewis not only gives us Gilda’s trademark suspenders and slacks and Zweibel’s New York casual but one after another imaginative costume for the ever-changing Fonss.
Chelsea Sutton is assistant director. Casting is by Sandi Logan. Ronn Goswick is stage manager and Mike Jespersen technical director.
Andrew Carter, Darius De La Cruz, and Roni Geva are understudies.
Bunny Bunny—Gilda Radner: A Sort Of Romantic Comedy guarantees the Falcon another bona fide hit in the “truth is every bit as entertaining as fiction” tradition of Billy & Ray, Souvenir, and director Tosca’s previous (I kick myself for missing it) Laurel And Hardy.
I’m guessing that from somewhere in Comedians’ Heaven, Gilda herself would approve.
Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.
February 7, 2014
Photos: Chelsea Sutton