Vilanch And Others A Hit In “Celebrity Autobiography”

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New York Times
September 22, 2008
The Lives, Loves and Ducks of Luminary Literature

Have you ever wondered just how it is that Heather Locklear and Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe became a couple? What tore apart the great love between Loni Anderson and Burt Reynolds? Why Ivana Trump believes ducks make great pets? What Neil Sedaka likes to order at an Italian restaurant?

I sincerely hope — and really expect — that you have answered all the above questions in the negative. But even so, you will probably get a kick out of “Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words,” a merry compendium of the witlessness and wisdom of the rich and famous performed on Monday nights at the Triad Theater.

The mock-sober title, which almost sounds like the name of a television crime show, is to the point. This no-frills, big-yuks entertainment consists simply of comics and actors reading verbatim selections from the memoirs — and the odd poetry collection, emphasis on “odd” — of minor- and major-league stars. Originally created in Los Angeles by the writer-performer Eugene Pack, the evening’s host, the show features a rotating cast of performers serving up a savory assortment of excerpts from tell-all tomes, including “Vanna Speaks,” “Elizabeth Taylor” by Elizabeth Taylor and “Mr. T: The Man With the Gold.”

The show is a bracing tonic for anyone weary of our fame-addled culture. It gives you a chance to indulge in a little celebrity schadenfreude without having to endure the shame of grabbing that issue of In Touch Weekly off the rack at the grocery store. (You never know who might be behind you in line. Your boss? Your therapist? Jennifer Aniston herself?)

And, oh, how many fascinating revelations our cultural luminaries have put between hardbound covers over the years. At the performance I attended I learned all about Ivana’s duck friendliness, courtesy of the actress Claudia Shear. Like most of the performers, Ms. Shear understands that the morsels being served don’t need much in the way of comic garnish. Simple sobriety is usually the proper seasoning.

In Ms. Trump’s fate-temptingly titled “The Best Is Yet to Come,” the former wife of the Donald also gives her advice on child raising, with an emphasis on choosing the right sports. Field hockey, no. Karate, yes. Most memorably she recalls her tough-love on the slopes with her offspring: “At the age of 2, I took each of them to the top of a hill and told them, ‘Ski down!’ They would wail, ‘I don’t like it!’ ‘Tough honey,’ I’d tell them. ‘Get to the bottom of the mountain.’ ” (The grammar in celebrity autobiographies, not surprisingly, leaves much to be desired. Clearly Ms. Trump was not herself aged 2 when these character-forming incidents took place.)

Casting against type adds to the fun. Will Forte, the neat-looking fellow from “Saturday Night Live,” read from Mr. Lee’s contribution to a collective Mötley Crüe memoir. Bruce Vilanch did a delicious vocal double take when reciting his selection from Star Jones’s memoir, airily describing the high life of a diva, the nights at the Ritz in Paris, the vacations on the “Swiss Riviera.” Crinkling his Muppety face in fake fascination, he slowly repeated the words, appending a question mark. Kristen Johnston made an oddly convincing Mr. T. (My favorite howler, from his description of preparing to audition for a “Rocky” movie: “I received a seven-page script to study in three days.” Think of it — seven pages in a mere three days.)

Generally speaking the selections fall into a few categories. There are the unfascinating details offered up as if they are precious insights (the minutiae of Joan Lunden’s pre-“Good Morning America” routine, Mr. Sedaka’s dietary restrictions); the preening descriptions of luxe lifestyles (Ms. Jones, Ms. Trump); and of course the true tales of romance among the red-carpet crowd.

Love stories provided the double-feature climax on the night I attended. First came the history of Burt and Loni, hilariously told in counterpoint through selections from both of their books. Tony Roberts was burly Burt, Ms. Johnston played Loni, and Rachel Dratch provided diversionary comment taken from “Burt and Me: My Days and Nights With Burt Reynolds,” by Elaine Blake Hall. “I was on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Ms. Dratch drably reads in a flat accent. “As time went on, I came to realize that somewhere down the road I lost ‘Elaine.’ ” There followed a similar he-said, she-said, she-said dramatization of the immortal love triangle of Elizabeth Taylor (Sherri Shepherd of “The View”), Debbie Reynolds (Dayle Reyfel) and Eddie Fisher (Mr. Pack), with Mr. Roberts in a cameo as Richard Burton.

Drinks are served at the Triad, and I would argue that a cocktail makes a perfect accompaniment to “Celebrity Autobiography.” But sip with care, please. Beware, in particular, should Andrea Martin take the stage. Ms. Martin may be reading from the love poetry of Suzanne Somers. Unless you want to spritz gin all over the fellow sitting in front of you, put the martini glass down.


In Their Own Words

Created by Eugene Pack; produced by Angelo Fraboni, Peter Martin, Mr. Pack and Dayle Reyfel. Mondays at 7:30 at the Triad Theater, 158 West 72nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 868-4444. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.