WHAT’S THE SECRET WORD?

WHAT’S THE SECRET WORD?

In his much anticipated, first major stage appearance since 1991, obnoxious-sweet man-child Pee-wee Herman (Paul Ruebens) appears at Club Nokia downtown in what is essentially a slightly updated re-creation of his CBS kids' show, Pee-wee's Playhouse. It's populated on David Korins' set of colorful animated objects by an array of puppets and the live characters who made the Playhouse a cult classic among kids of the '80s, and adults who wanted to be among them. These include Mailman Mike (John Moody), Bear (Drew Powell), Jambi (John Paragon), Sergio (Jesse Garcia), Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), King of Catoons (Lance Roberts) and Firefighter (Josh Meyers). The spectacle, directed by Alex Timbers, is really an exercise is nostalgia that aims to re-start Pee-wee's public life, and in that motive resides the show's drawbacks. Ruebens is as limber as ever, having barely aged and with odd, agile and moralistic Pee-wee rollicks in an ill-fitting gray suit, trademark red bowtie and greased hair. Ensnaring our infatalism and self-absorption, with moments of poignant generosity, Pee-wee's 7-year-old mentality, locked into his psyche as though with the huge chain of his bicycle, was and remains a brilliant invention. This show, however, co-written by Ruebens and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by John Paragon, is less so. The Pee-wee shtick wears out quickly, as though even Ruebens is getting tired of it, and the droll, '50s moralizing, captured in vintage cartoons about the importance of washing hands and showing courtesy in a lunch line, is as thin as the kind of kitschy wrapping paper you might have once found in Wacko. There's a lovely moment where Pee-wee suffers the consequences of giving away a wish he's been granted -- which means he has to suffer for his compassion by not getting what he wants. Life lesson? Hardly, when that consequence is gratuitously reversed. The reversal isn't the problem; it's that happy endings come out of the sky if you're just nice to people. No, they don't. The campiness and irony is just an excuse for sidestepping a real idea, or the kind of scrutiny that sharp kids' entertainments rely on. Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown.; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 7, www.peewee.com. (800) 745-3000.
Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4:30 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 & 7:30 p.m. Starts: Jan. 20. Continues through Feb. 7, 2010