"Rip Taylor? Isn't he dead?" opined an unkind family member upon learning that this weekend I was reviewing the new one-man show written and starring Rip Taylor, the comedian and pop culture "character." TV viewers of A Certain Age (and older) will doubtless recall Taylor, an omnipresent fixture of the 1970s, familiar from countless appearances on game shows like Match Game and Password, and also a Vegas go-to opening act for stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland and Eleanor Powell. With his masterfully mugging schtick, bugging eyes, waggling tongue and silly one-liners, Taylor's style wasn't for anyone and it was easy to dismiss his "character" as a rube. Yet, as his solo effort (directed by David Galligan) aptly indicates, any performer who has managed to have as big a career for as many decades as he has clearly possesses a mighty amount of talent and steel willpower. In the opening moments of Galligan's fast-moving, intimate production, Taylor strides onto the stage, clearly somewhat frail but still every inch the showman. His flapping toupee perches hilariously askew, as his pointy mustache waves. Next, he whips out a thick pile of file cards, each containing an individual one-liner and, in a dizzying display of jaw-dropping gagsmanship, he goes through every one, more than 80 in all, within the show's first 10 minutes. From there, Taylor rips off his toupee, tosses it behind him, and switches to more serious subject matter (with barely a joke in sight), as he describes his troubled childhood, his early successes as an emcee on the Atlantic City strip-club circuit, his discovery while performing at the Catskills and subsequent appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the gradual honing of his carefully calculated stage persona, which has been his bread and butter for more than half a century. Many of Taylor's revelations are fairly surface-level, dealing with his interactions with the stars he's come across and he often seems so in control over what he's saying, you could starve to death waiting for any "behind-the-mask" information about the performer. The show is ultimately a compelling presentation of a life and it's as much a must-see for students and historians of the comedy of a certain era as it is for folks who just want to share a warm laugh with a thoroughly amiable performer. El Portal Theatre, 11206 Waddington St., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 6. elportaltheatre.com, (866) 811-4111.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: May 21. Continues through June 6, 2010