From the title of his one-man show, "Laugh Whore," you get a clear idea of Mario Cantone's comedy. This ain't no call girl puttin' on airs. This is street stuff - wild and raunchy.
Are you shocked that I've dropped a g? That I've allowed myself an ain't?
Well, imagine how shocked I was at how quickly I succumbed to Cantone's humor.
I am, after all, no slouch in the pretense department. Like all theater lovers, I resent when the theater - make that theat-uh - becomes a venue for standup comedy.
But it took approximately a minute for Cantone to get me laughing. He was imitating Shelley Winters talking about all her leading men, a list in which she included Lauren Bacall.
Seconds later, Cantone was imitating Julia Child. The transition from needy, nasal actress to stiff, hooty WASP was instantaneous. And that was when I realized this was not nightclub stuff. It has a raw energy that's truly theatrical. It fills the stage.
In the course of the evening Cantone does other imitations - his rendition of Liza Minnelli and, later, of her mother, are pitch-perfect. So is his version of the encounter between LL Cool J and Carol Channing on last spring's Tony telecast.
He also does some mean, painfully on-target riffs on Michael Jackson.
But his most appealing material is about growing up in an Italian-American family.
In reminiscing, his style is just as in-your-face, but occasionally he lets the harsh mask he wears for most of the evening drop and you see the little boy being naughty and sassy to hold his own in a tough world.
Is it sometimes too much? Is the desire to outrage sometimes fatiguing? You betcha.
But ultimately there's a kind of bravery in sustaining this over-the-top tone for more than two hours. That's not what whores do. They've figured out the shortcuts to maximize their earning ability. Anybody this eager to keep pulling out all the stops deserves to be called a star.
Clearly this is the Broadway season for one-man/one-woman/one-possum shows. We have five of them due to open before the end of the year.
Sometimes it seems a pity that they couldn't all get together, form a quintet and do a sitcom.
However the first up to bat was Mario Cantone, who opened at the Cort Theatre last night. Presumably the title of his one-man, two-joke show, "Laugh Whore," implies that Cantone will do anything for a laugh.
Unfortunately, so far as I am concerned, he did not do enough. Admittedly, as an invited critic with a freebie, I was not a paying customer.
Cantone's manner and material is infused with a kind of gay-provincial spirit - largely appealing to the sort of gays who go weak-kneed over Judy Garland and then make jokes about gays going weak-kneed over Judy Garland.
It's called counter-intuitive camp and is found chiefly in places like Little Rock. So I am told.
At one point he claims with cock-robin pride: "The show is starting to look like a Fire Island cabaret." He should be so lucky.
His performing style is hyper-active - he occasionally modulates his shrill, amply amplified voice down to a scream, while he twitches across the stage like a man preparing an audition for a Six Flags commercial.
He has been directed by the distinguished Joe Mantello - so that is presumably the way Mantello wanted it. Odd. But from his opening Paul Anka-like anthem to his closing Kander and Ebb-style finale the show doesn't flow. It sputters. Odd.
Now, when I said Cantone had two jokes this was not strictly accurate, for really he has two categories of joke. The mean-spirited humor of the first part of his presentation is basically showbiz, while the equally mean-spirited humor of the second part is ethnic.
Cantone is an Italian-American gay - or at least he plays one in the theater - from whence his sour humor burbles, most of it adolescently foul-mouthed and Friars' Roast nasty.
Plenty of comedians fledge their barbs with gay, showbiz and ethnic humor - but the best of them, say Jackie Mason for one example, manage it with an essential good nature and humanity.
Cantone is simply mean. He takes easy targets - Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson, Shelley Winters, for God's sake - and flays them as if they were dead horses.
So, does the guy have any talent? Sure. He's as energized as a battery, can do a few star impressions, running the standard gamut from Carol Channing to Joan Rivers, even throwing in Bette Davis, and he is very quick and effective in an audience interplay that really does show a nimble, clever wit in ad lib.
Not all is lost, Mario. And in fairness the audience at the performance I attended laughed a lot. He should invite it back. Me, I hated it. Wild, gay stallions wouldn't force me back.
For indisputable evidence that comedy is fueled by anger, as the adage has it, take a gander at Mario Cantone's face as he approaches a payoff line in "Laugh Whore," the handsomely gussied-up stand-up comedy show that opened at Broadway's Cost Theater last night. The dancing eyebrows flatline. The jaw settles into a strained grimace. The soft brown eyes are transformed into bottomless pools of hostility. Suddenly that amiably yapping puppy has become a snarling Doberman. Yikes!
Oddly, Mr. Cantone is most appealing when he's seething. When he pulls aside the mask of an aggressively likable persona to reveal the volcano of outrage underneath we most prize him.
This is probably because most of us have to keep our masks on. If a cabdriver ignores our advice, we cannot channel the spirit of Faye Dunaway-as-Joan Crawford, as Mr. Cantone does, and emit a strangled cry from the back seat: "Why ... must ... you ... defy me?!" It would probably be useless, and it would definitely be humiliating. But it is a cathartic pleasure to watch Mr. Cantone enact this small drama of urban vengeance.
Mr. Cantone is probably best known as one of the gay accessories sported by the "Sex and the City" gals to match their Manolos (he was Charlotte's confidant, the hostile-but-lovable Anthony). He has made several appearances as an actor on Broadway, memorably playing a musical-theater-obsessed melancholic in Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and a musical-theater-obsessed psychotic in the recent revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins." As perhaps can be inferred from that brief career-highlights reel - casting is often typecasting, like it or not - Mr. Cantone is gay. Much of the funniest material in "Laugh Whore" expresses a buoyantly, exuberantly, even belligerently gay sensibility. Mr. Cantone may be an ideal comedian for the digital-cable generation, jumping haphazardly from subject to subject like a bored viewer with an itchy clicker finger. But he tends to settle on channels showing things like reruns of the "Cher" variety hour, on which this solo show, with its mod white set by Robert Brill, could have been modeled. (Mr. Cantone himself gets to play all the special guest stars.)
"Laugh Whore" is, in fact, even gayer than a "Cher" rerun. How gay is it? So gay that when Mr. Cantone called for a straight man from the audience - meaning a bona fide heterosexual male – I wondered whether the show might have to be held up while a conscript was dragged in off 48th Street.
Among Mr. Cantone's talents is an uncanny gift for vocal mimicry, displayed in a series of musical segments that pay loving tribute to - even as they mercilessly mock - all the leading members of the Official Registry of Gay Icons. Judy and Liza both have extended solos in the spotlight (Mr. Cantone nails their different brands of gushy enthusiasm and slushy elocution). Cher and Tina Turner and Carol Channing make appearances, too. Mr. Cantone's re-enactment of the surreal pairing of Ms. Channing and LL Cool J at this year's Tony Awards is a particular pleasure. Introduced to her co-presenter, who is described to her as a rapper, Ms. Channing burbles jubilantly, "Like in the Christmas department at Bloomingdale's?"
The best jokes can bulldoze their way across cultural barriers, of course, and even the metrosexually challenged will appreciate much of Mr. Cantone's material. His decoding of the antigay subtext in the television perennial "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," for instance, is priceless. The conclusion, spat through clenched teeth in a quivering rage: "If I was Rudolph, I would have said: 'Santa, you humiliated me my whole life. Crash and burn!' " And Mr. Cantone does venture into more standard stand-up territory, including tales of growing up in a seriously odd Italian-American family ("My mother wanted o redecorate the house and she didn't have the money, so she burned it down") and a few de rigueur ants about the anxious state of the nation.
Mr. Cantone has engaged one of Broadway's most in-demand directors, Joe Mantello (he directed “Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "Assassins"), to oversee the production, but despite the posh trappings - the white set is bathed in psychedelic colors by the top-tier lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer - much of it retains the formless feeling of a club routine. This can lead to a slack pace, as Mr. Cantone ambles from one segment to the next with little or no connecting tissue. Structure and thematic design, not necessities in an hour-long club set, are more important in a two-hour, two-act Broadway show, and they are missing in action here.
But if "Laugh Whore" does not prove to be the shapeliest of the many solo shows heading to a Broadway theater near you this fall, it is certainly a fine first salvo. Mr. Cantone concludes with a bawdy nod to one of his fellow travelers in the solo spotlight, Eve Ensler (her "Good Body" opens in a few weeks). Taking suggestions from the audience, he gives a dozen divas, from Julia Child to Joan Rivers, the chance they never had to perform in Ms. Ensler's long-running celebration of female sexuality, "The Vagina Monologues." Virtually all of what he said cannot be printed, or indeed even described, here. But it was a giddy delight.
Leading the charge for this season's invasion of one-person shows -- upcoming are Whoopi Goldberg, Dame Edna, Billy Crystal and Eve Ensler -- Mario Cantone proves himself a ferocious comic dynamo with an infectiously manic command of the stage in "Laugh Whore." Title indicates an unapologetic performer with no illusions of greater glory. What's missing is some kind of narrative shape to elevate the hilarious sprawl of material from superior standup into the kind of full-blooded theatrical experience that can justify Broadway prices and a running time of more than two hours.
Profane and pugnacious, Cantone is wickedly entertaining, supplying more laughs per minute in his solo show than anything else on a New York stage right now. The comic's colorful Italian-American family would seem to be fertile clay from which to mold an autobiographical skeleton.
But despite opening with a shticky version of the ultimate diva's camp confessional, "This Is My Life," self-revelation takes a back seat to savage observation of celebrities, family members and popular culture, with no real unifying thread beyond that of an opinionated, irreverent guy running off at the mouth.
This may be reward enough for Cantone's large gay following and for fans of his shrill wedding planner on "Sex and the City." But the star's tireless energy, gifted mimicry and equal facility with verbal and physical comedy -- not to mention Joe Mantello's taut, impeccably polished direction -- hint that this freewheeling rant with a handful of songs could have become not just a good-time whore but a whole rollicking whorehouse.
Much of the first act is devoted to Cantone's one-man celebrity massacre, revealing his dazzling talent for barbed impersonation. His rendition of a sputtering Shelley Winters on "Inside the Actors Studio" is priceless ("I fucked all my leading men. Kirk Douglas, Tony Franciosa, Lauren Bacall, I fucked them all"), as is his late-in-life Julia Child, with a neck emerging directly from her breasts.
Cantone's skewering of his foibles also is channeled through celebs. Acknowledging he's too much of a control freak to take cabs, he gives us Mario as Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford as a taxi driver's nightmare. Cher takes a sustained beating ("Cher has an Oscar. And that's the punchline."), prompting a delirious rendition of the diva and Tina Turner dueting on "Proud Mary."
Cantone's skill at aping body language is on par with his vocal abilities. His scissor-legged Turner is matched by Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret doing "Viva Las Vegas," and Judy Garland in an extended second-act revisitation of her CBS series, including song "My Name Is Gumm," whose chorus goes, "He's half a homo, and I love him."
Even the most widely lampooned, unintentionally self-parodying celebrities are somehow fresh putty in Cantone's hands. "Idiot savant" Michael Jackson feeds an especially rich diatribe ("Now he has a clitoris for a nose"), while Carol Channing's appearance at this year's Tony Awards with LL Cool J sparks a very funny imagined conversation between the two across a vast cultural divide.
One of the show's best original songs, penned by Jerry Dixon, Cantone and Harold Lubin, is a tragic survivor anthem performed as Liza Minnelli called "I Ain't Finished Yet" ("I'm strong as a fungus, my future's humongous"), replete with screwy asides to the band leader.
Act two shifts to focus more on Cantone's family, a clan that includes his four burly uncles with chunka-lunka pinky rings, a scary mother prone to robbing the house or burning it down for insurance, a half-brother no one dared to ask about and a duck-mouthed cousin who was the authority on everything. By far the most brilliant comic creation of the show is the one constructed around Cantone's hard-drinking, chain-smoking, gravel-voiced, trash-talking sister Camille.
Cantone's account of his trip to Italy with Camille and his other overanxious sister is a comic high point, as are Camille's views on Bill Clinton: "So he liked the BJs. He had a high-pressure job. I want my president to be relaxed. You can be sure no one's relaxing George Dubya."
Closest Cantone comes to personal reflection is in looking at all the women in his family who have died young from cancer, though he declines to linger long over anything not milked for caustic comedy.
While his sexuality is a fundamental part of Cantone's act, there's no real insight provided into growing up a gay, theatrical kid in a working-class Italian family of masculine men and overbearing women, no mention of coming out or of relationships, any of which might have added the missing personal dimension.
The comic does successfully mine his early career for material -- his stint teaching at a tough Manhattan public high school for the deaf, his five years hosting New York kids TV show "Steampipe Alley," his engagement as Stephano in "The Tempest" with Patrick Stewart ("These are 400-year-old jokes. You make them funny!") and, most amusingly, his participation as Timon in the pre-Broadway workshop production of "The Lion King" and scathing summation of the challenges of operating a puppet.
Broadway also comes under his comic radar in a merciless look back at "Cats," while Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" prompts a devastatingly funny barrage of impersonations of women who didn't live to perform in that show, starting with a post-stroke Bette Davis. One of the more improvisational stretches of the show, this track spurs Cantone to solicit suggestions from the audience, all of which he fearlessly tackles, from Ethel Merman to Oprah Winfrey.
Cantone's aggressive brand of showbiz pizzazz and sassiness is flawlessly echoed in Robert Brill's simple yet flashy set, comprising a wall of lights, multiple poles and -- for a short time in act two -- a staircase and couch. The staging wittily epitomizes cheesy variety shows and Broadway glitz, a dual mission furthered by the scorching colors of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting.