Safe at Home: An Evening with Orson Bean
Reviewed by Pauline Adamek
Pacific Resident Theatre
Through November 29
“There’s a danger with one-man shows. What if you don’t like the performer? You’re screwed.” I’m paraphrasing, but this is a sentiment that Orson Bean articulates early into his own one-man show. The ironic implications just hang in the air, unanswered. Before and after this line, however, Bean’s efforts indicate his intent to entertain rather than leave us with regrets.
Why spend an evening with Orson Bean? The now 87 year-old performer of stage and screen naturally has a lifetime of memories to cherry pick and relate. More importantly, the man is a consummate raconteur who has honed his sleight-of-hand trickery and comic timing to perfection. His style is amiable and droll, easy and nimble.
Bean enters the stage wheeling a small wooden cart containing a few props, and his friendly, aged face is creased with deep laugh lines. Our host then launches into a casual stand-up routine of jokes that are way older than he is, softening up the crowd. “This is not the show,” he assures us after the third or fourth hoary old gag, “This is the warm-up.”
He eases into some reminiscences from his youth, in particular observing the tempestuous relationship between his mother and father. The best stories from his early days are of his extraordinary entrepreneurial drive, devising ingenious ways to corner a market, provide a service and then rake in some profits.
Occasionally a spotlight hits him and some calliope music plays. Bean then wordlessly does a little magic trick with a wand or some rolled up newspaper or a white paper bag and some magically appearing “fireflies.” For a bafflingly clever card trick, he elicits the assistance of an audience member and then has that person perform an astonishing trick behind his back while following Bean’s instruction. “Mind over matter,” he remarks.
Bean’s story gains momentum in his recollections of the early ’50s, when he decides to take his magic skills and unappreciated stand-up comedy routine to New York City. That’s when, he tells us, “the Jazz joints were jumping.” He makes a beeline for the hottest cabaret nightclub, The Blue Angel, and manages to score a timeslot. He kills. The manager immediately offers him a contract, just before Walter Winchell’s rave review hits the newspapers. Appearances on Ed Sullivan ensue. The (then 22-year-old) kid’s career takes off. Prior to that, his comedy had fallen flat. A fellow performer explained his routine was “too hip for the room.” It took a savvy New York crowd to grant him confidence.
What follows is a remarkable career, and even though Bean skips forward 30 years, we gain a satisfying sampling of his life experiences. Best of all is the ease and comfort with which the man entertains us, guided by Guillermo Cienfuegos’s direction. After all, Bean has been at it for decades.
The Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd. (west of Lincoln) in Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 29. (310) 822-8392, www.pacificresidenttheatre.com
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.