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Tickle Me Rita

WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Standup comic Rita Rudner's new play brings a story of women's friendships, surrounded by lots of laughs, to The Laguna Playhouse.

Courtesy of The Laguna Playhouse

Tickled Pink
Through May 20
The Laguna Playhouse
606 Laguna Canyon Rd.,
Laguna Beach
:: lagunaplayhouse.com

In a mostly male-dominated medium, Rita Rudner stands out as one of the funniest and most successful standup comics of her generation. But her talents don’t stop there. Rudner, who headlines at The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas three nights a week, is also a prolific writer of more than wry, keenly observed jokes. In 2001, her novel Tickled Pink was published, and now Rudner has collaborated with her husband of 20-plus years, Martin Bergman, to create a theatrical version that debuted April 24 at The Laguna Playhouse.

Tickled Pink tells the story of Mindy Solomon, a young dancer who, as Rudner herself did, moves from Miami to New York to make it big on Broadway. She soon switches careers to standup comedy and then the real struggle – and laughs – begin.

Tickled Pink would be enjoyable enough just as an extended version of Rudner’s signature standup act, with her slow delivery and surprising but perfectly placed punch lines, but it is something more. Disguised as a laugh-out-loud shlub-to-celebrity story, it is actually a heartfelt portrait of women’s friendships and the indelible, eternal connections they engender.

When Mindy first arrives in New York in the early '80s, she meets Ursula Duran, a stunning aspiring model with a mother straight out of a Rudner joke (and played by Rudner herself) and an instant bond is created between the women. While Mindy is adorable, funny and utterly likeable, it is Ursula that is Rudner’s more complex creation. She is blond and beautiful but she’s not dumb, or self-serving, or shallow. She is loyal and caring and actually has hidden talents that don’t become apparent to her or anyone else until the play’s a-bit-too-neatly-tied-up conclusion. She is as far from a stereotype as you can get and thankfully, Mindy spends no time envying her. They simply form a life-long friendship that outlasts numerous men, conniving business partners and even impossible parents. As her comedy career develops Mindy also meets Penelope (Betsy Reisz), an aspiring comic who becomes her writing partner and another of her best friends. Yes, there are a succession of boyfriends for Ursula and Mindy (Penelope is a lesbian) and even a couple who stick, but it is women’s friendships that Tickled Pink celebrates, without cliché and without too much sentimentality.

Making her Laguna Playhouse debut, Emma Fassler plays Mindy as a feisty, if somewhat self-deprecating naïf, who stumbles upon the fact that she’s funny and has the moxie to go with it. Fassler’s delivery of Mindy’s extended comedy routines is inspired: She manages to suggest Rudner in her low-key affect, without ever seeming to be trying to do an impersonation. She is laugh-out-loud funny.

In Ursula, Annie Abrams has the difficult task of conveying depth in someone who is valued purely for her looks, and she succeeds admirably. She is matter-of-fact about her looks and much more interested in supporting Mindy’s fledgling career and trading war stories with her than in worrying about whether her makeup is smudging. The fact that these two opposites are convincing as best friends is a testament to both actresses’ skills.

They are ably supported by a 13-member ensemble cast that includes Rudner herself in several hilarious roles. Other standouts are Michael Kirby as, among other roles, Mindy’s likeliest candidate for permanent boyfriend status – a comedy writer who sells out to sitcoms and nearly goes mad in the process, and Greg Bryan, as a hapless would-be comedian who one night hits it big with a hilarious routine about his own death.

At a little over two hours Tickled Pink could stand some trimming: There’s a little too much “this happened and then this happened and then this happened” to the narrative, and some unnecessary tangents, such as an incongruous scene about AIDS just to remind us that it’s supposed to be the '80s, but the quick scene changes (done with a few choice pieces of furniture and backgrounds projected onto paneled scrims), unpretentious lighting and amazing, lightning fast costume changes (designer Dwight Richard Odle has the '80s down to a “t”) keep things moving.

In these times it is never out of place to have a good laugh, and Tickled Pink will provide that and much more. But be forewarned: When you leave the theater, you may have an irresistible urge to call your best friend.

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