Borscht belt detour showcases Catskills' gentle, dated humor @

March 04, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Judging from "Catskills on Broadway," the four-member comedy revue now at the Lyric Opera House, it seems safe to say you can take the comic out of the Catskills, but you can't take the Catskills out of the comic.

Food is a major activity at the hotels in the Catskills, explains Mal Z. Lawrence, the comic who comes on last and earns some of the biggest laughs. "People eat so much food up there, they have developed a new disease -- Anorexia Ponderosa."

Food is an ideal metaphor to describe the appeal of this show, which appears to be something of an acquired taste -- like gefilte fish.

For that matter, eating is a repeated subject, as is bathroom humor and the type of gentle political incorrectness that allows grown men to refer to grown women as "girls."

If this seems dated, at least in terms of the humor popular in comedy clubs today, that appears to be the point. A high degree of nostalgia is operating here, beginning with the opening slide show of Catskills resorts, which catered to a largely Jewish clientele.

Much of "Catskills" -- whose format consists of four stand-up routines -- is accessible to a general audience. This is particularly true of versatile impressionist Louise DuArt, who presents the sweetest moment of the evening when she impersonates George Burns telephoning Gracie Allen in heaven.

Dick Capri, introduced as one of the first Italian comedians to play the Catskills, is the most subdued of the four. His best bit is about his family tree, which includes a relative who's half Baptist and half Jewish: "He was circumcised under water."

"Catskills" was conceived by Freddie Roman, who also serves as emcee and who, in this era of hard-edged humor, has a refreshingly warm approach. The show ran for 14 months on Broadway and is now in the seventh week of a national tour -- after six weeks in Florida.

Florida, according to Roman, is no longer a Southern state: "Floridais a suburb of anywhere cold."

Chances are, however, Florida is also a suburb of the Catskills for many of the audiences the show played to there.

However, while "Catskills" on the road might seem risky, the show certainly struck a chord with much of the opening-night audience at the Lyric. Some of the theatergoers seated behind me anticipated punch lines with regularity and accuracy, and a fellow in front of me laughed so hard, he was stamping his foot.

Three songs the band played at the start of the show probably sum it up best: "Those Were The Days," "Hava Nagila" and "Comedy Tonight." If that combination works for you, this show probably will, too.

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