Written by Rupert Holmes
Directed by John Tillinger
Starring Joel Rooks

Reviewed by David Spencer

When the one-man play Say Goodnight, Gracie first played NYC at the small Helen Hayes Theatre on 44th Street, a Broadway house, it featured Frank Gorshin delivering an absolutely winning and uncannily near-perfect rendering of comedian-actor George Burns, in a script written by Rupert Holmes. But Gorshin's was not merely an impersonation. It was, rather, an inhabitation. There wasn't a moment in the evening in which you didn't feel convincingly in the presence of Burns himself. Gorshin captured not only the timing, the signature tics and gestures, the voice–but the heart. And as the show is primarily a reminiscence of his life and career with partner and wife Gracie Allen, a love affair that lasted their lives together, the heart was most important.

At the time, it seemed like a great personal triumph for Gorshin, just as Mark Twain Tonight was for Hal Holbrook and Will Rogers' U.S.A. was for James Whitmore, to be associated with him alone, forever and amen. (In pre-recorded cues, Didi Conn stood in almost as uncannily, for Ms. Allen.) But then there was a tour. During which Gorshin fell ill. And Jamie Farr (aka Klinger in M*A*S*H) took over for two months in 2004. Gorshin returned to the role thereafter and played it through April 24 2005, finishing the final performance of the Tennessee engagement, whereupon he boarded a plane for his home, Los Angeles; he was met at the airport by an ambulance which took him to the hospital, where on May 17 he died of lung cancer, emphysema and pneumonia at the age of 72.

But by then, Say Goodnight, Gracie had made its mark as what the Brits call "a nice little earner." And three more actors followed and continue to play him (with Didi Conn's voice overs remaining an indelible part of the sound design): Alan Safier (who just delivered a one-night stand in Brooklyn, and can be seen as George on an extended YouTube clip here), Don McArt and now—in NYC for an extended stay, playing three matinees a week on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays—Joel Rooks. Which may be especially notable, as he was Gorshin's Broadeway standby. How well does he fare?

Well, the conceit of the show first: Justifying autobiographical retrospective, it posits that after Burns’ death at the age of 100, he has to audition–for God–for the privilege of gaining admittance upstairs and being reunited with Gracie. And of course, his relationship with her provides the primary focus, while authentic film and audio clips enhance the journey. As to the production: The set was never truly important to the show; it needs a couple of places for Burns to sit down occasionally, an old time radio and a screen for filmclips. And that's it. And that's what the current remounting has. But you can bet it looked nicer in the original Broadway production. What's here is pure no-frills quick-load, quick-strike bus-and-truck. And it shows some signs of use. Again, though: not really important.

What's important, of course, is Mr. Rooks. The start is bumpy for a small while. Rooks is not the master impressionist Gorshin was, nor that Safier seems to be in the YouTube clip cited above. So he doesn't exactly "channel" Burns with the same uncanniness, nor thus make the same instant connection with the audience; he's on trial for the first five minutes or so. What he is, though, is a fine character actor who inhabits the Burns persona comfortably. The voice isn't exactly right and he doesn't always wrangle Burns's thowaway ease, but he's very much close enough in spirit that once you get used to him—and in turn, once he settles in—you tacitly make a pact with him that this is okay. Whatever else may be true, he's delivering quality goods and he won't disappoint you. And you decide that's good enough. After that it's a short trip before he wins you over.

Over the years, the show's tour direction has been credited to several utility men, each clearly following the template of Broadway's original, John Tillinger—and for this engagement, with Rooks having performed it for so long, there's not even a pretense of directing credit. Only "staging by" William Franzblau, he being the producer. And fair enough; it seems to need little more: Rooks has a secure handle on the proceedings. Say Goodnight, Gracie remains a sweet reminiscence and it's well worth your time.

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