Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner,
A Sort of Love Story
At the Mercury Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Bunny, Bunny” is a comedy drama by television writer adapted from his book that recounts his long-time semi-romantic relationship with comedian Gilda Rader. The story begins with the nervous young twosome breaking into television together and ending with Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989. The play is running at the intimate Mercury Theater and should draw throngs of patrons who enjoy fresh comedy with an underpinning of genuine emotion.
Radner and Zweibel both gained their reputations in cutting edge TV comedy, Zweibel writing for such programs as “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Radner becoming a star as first generation member of the Saturday Night Live show in 1975 after an apprenticeship with the Toronto outpost of Second City. The two formed an immediate tight friendship that never traveled as far as a full-tilt love affair. Maybe they cared too much for each other to ruin their relationship by marrying.
The play is structured as a two-character piece with a third actor making periodic cameo appearances in more than 20 roles ranging from Andy Warhol to a Radner girl friend who comes weeping to Gilda’s apartment with lover woes just as Zweibel was finally ready to score with Gilda. The play outwardly centers on Radner with her insecurities about her terrible record with men and her doubts about her talents as a comedian (she also suffered from an eating disorder fretting about her weight). But the play’s focus is more on Zweibel as the narrator, serving as the conduit for the evening’s mix of comic and serious moments.
“Bunny Bunny” reflects its Saturday Night Live and Second City roots. It is made up of a series of quick scenes, most of them quirky funny like a Second City SNL blackout or short comedy sketch. The scenes form a continuous flow but many could be plucked out as complete stand-alone comic bits.
Dana Tretter bears a remarkable facial resemblance to the real-life Gilda, though I don’t remember Radner being only five feet tall. Jackson Evans is her perfect partner as Alan Zweibel. Evans has a droll, understated comic style and an offhand charm that is just the right complement to the psychological complexities of Tretta’s Gilda. Their banter is a continuous delight and when they do get serious, it’s within the context of the comedy and isn’t a wrenching mood breaker. The show runs a little more than two hours plus an intermission and it zips along happily for the entire first act and much of the second act. The pace slows down toward the end, primarily I suspect because of our foreknowledge of Radner’s death from her cancer, making us a little impatient to see how the story’s ending is handled. The final moments are necessarily sad but without giving anything away, I can vouch for the conclusion being handled with taste and brevity, though the tear-up quotient in the audience likely was about 100%.
Tretta and Evans are assisted mightily by Jason Grimm’s quick change appearances in the variety of third character bits that add garnish to the play’s comedy. There are even numerous humorous assists from stagehands Jake Bradley and Anna Segatti as they move props on and off stage. The pair coincidentally are the understudies for Evans and Tretta.
Props go to director Warner Crocker for sustaining the wry humorous tone of Zweibel’s script without once descending to cheap laughs or losing contact with the characters as real people who just happen to be funny. Crocker’s long and honorable directorial reputation in Chicagoland theater hasn’t resided in sketch comedy, but Crocker clearly has a deft facility for the form. The physical production is handled effectively by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod (scenic design), Robert Kuhn (costume design), Kristof Janezic (lighting design), and Mike Przygoda (sound design).
I entered the Mercury Theater with modest expectations, anticipating a vanity production exploiting Radner’s career and tragic early death. Instead, I enjoyed a show performed with wit, intelligence, and honest feeling, subtly but flawlessly staged and performed by actors who seem made for their roles. For me, “Bunny, Bunny” is the most pleasant surprise of the season.
“Bunny Bunny” runs through April 1 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $55. Call 773 325 1700 or visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
The show gets a rating of.
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