SID CAESAR & IMOGENE COCA TOGETHER AGAIN
at the Briar Street Theatre
On the night I saw Together Again, Sid Caesar had his pink shirt open down to there. He was tanned, he was slim, he wore a gold chain around his neck, and the monogram on his shirt read "Sid." It was a sort of a Disco Wallenda look. A Fox-in-the-Retirement-Community-Coop look. It made me wince.
His patter wasn't any better. Although teamed here with his old Your Show of Shows partner, Imogene Coca, the former king of TV comedy takes a long solo turn consisting of gags he's pleased to call "truths"--as in, "Now, if I may, I'd like to show you another truth." What follows this introduction aren't really truths, however, but shticklach so old they seem eternal: There's the one about a baby who has to guide his bleary-eyed dad through the administration of an early morning bottle. And the one where a husband-to-be contemplates his bride's bad cooking. And also the one where a teenage boy tries to make it through his first dance. Familiar, sure. Nostalgic, certainly. But truth? It made me wince again.
Still, I haven't come to bury Caesar. For all his bad taste and pomposity between gags--and all the anachronism of the gags themselves--Caesar manifests tremendous skill when he actually gets around to performing. Physical skill. Clown skill. His impression of the nervous teenager, in particular, is a symphony of tics: the poor kid's hands flutter around at the end of his sleeves like a couple of hooked trout, hilariously incapable of lying still; when he tries to talk to a girl, his tongue swells out of his mouth and down his chin until he's forced to stuff it back in with his fingers. Likewise, Caesar's awakening baby is a mind-boggling confluence of lip smacks, eye flutters, and cheek pops. These gambits are every bit as cornball obvious as the "truths" in which they're set, but Caesar's lucid body language renews them. His craftsmanship is the one genuine truth he presents.
Caesar would be much better off in general if he'd just shut up and clown. Take his allegedly classic impression of Professor Ludwig von something-or-other, the whacked-out but eminent German authority on whatever, who blathers Teutonically on about philosophical conundrums like the concept of now. Considered for its verbal wit, the bit's a washout: Severn Darden's legendary Walter von der Vogelweide character talks nonsense on an infinitely higher plane. So does Professor Irwin Corey, for that matter. As pantomime, however, it sings--especially when Caesar offers his politically backward but physically artful versions of a romantic scene as it might be played out in German, Italian, and Japanese. Old punch lines fade away, but a pratfall is forever.
And speaking of forever, 81-year-old Imogene Coca is as charming now as she was 40 years ago, on Your Show of Shows. Of course, the quality of that charm has changed somewhat over the decades: where once she could play the Donna Reed dime-a-dance-girl part in a parody of From Here to Eternity, now she looks like Buster Keaton's goofy sister--a spindly old pop-eyed Puck with a cap of improbably brown hair and a wild, Harpo Marx-ish grin that makes it seem as if she's always about to do something really, really embarrassing. I'd love to see her in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Like Caesar, this sweet gargoyle performs vintage material; but she also appears to have realized that her current relationship to that material is different from what it was when she first tried it out years ago. Unlike the man with the disco decolletage, Coca knows her age and plays it. Whenever possible, anyway. For some gags, like the one that has her being hounded by an insanely jealous boyfriend, you just have to squint and pretend. But her appearance as a veteran ecdysiast called Miss Jetlag works precisely because she knows nobody wants to see an old lady strip. Coca makes great comedy of that knowledge without ever once turning the joke against herself or letting it demean her. Just the opposite: by the time she's finished, she's got us positively whipped up about--well, about a pop-eyed old lady in a raincoat. It's a triumph of mind over matter.
Unfortunately, there's more of Caesar's wince-inducing fatuousness in Together Again than there is of either his skill or Coca's self-awareness. The live band tears through "I Got Rhythm" with the sort of slick, jangly, pointless, fake virtuosity you expect to find in Las Vegas. Caesar's straight man, Lee Delano, isn't really there to be straight, but rather to seem as if he's losing it onstage, laughing helplessly at Caesar's jokes. The whole show has a smarmy edge to it--like Red Skelton saying, "May God blesth."
Still, it works. It does what it's supposed to do. Caesar closes with the hope that "we have brought back some memories," and I know he succeeded because my mom saw Together Again with me and came out of it with her eyes glistening. That, I guess, is entertainment.