Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress By a Life in Progress

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Joan Rivers is adamant that this is not a one-woman show – that would surely be far too self-indulgent for a comedian who’s made a career skewering the vanity of others.

But while A Work In Progress… has all the trappings of a play, with its set and supporting cast, it is, under the bonnet, very much a one-woman show, full of witty showbiz anecdotes, honest appraisals of her life’s many ups and downs, and the sort of acid-dipped barbs at celebrities that have given her such enduring appeal.

The setting backstage as she prepares for one of the red-carpet commentaries which have revived her fortunes in recent years. But the make-up girl hasn’t a clue, her dress has gone AWOL, her daughter has a better dressing room and her all-important complimentary cheese plate, as supplied by the network, contains nothing more than Dairylea slices.

Such precious problems might not seem all that much to Kvetch about, you might think, but – as the audience will come to discover, if they weren’t already aware – Rivers has had more than her share of heart-rending tragedy to deal with.

Everything in her life has been mined for raw material here: her husband Edgar’s suicide, the way US chat king Johnny Carson made her a pariah after a 20-year friendship the instant he perceived her to be a threat; her well-documented plastic surgery that has given her face a waxwork sheen; her ill-fated venture into film directing; her on-stage lesbianism with a young Barbara Streisand…

Yes, she drops names like confetti, but what names to drop! Elvis Presley, Joan Crawford, Paul Robeson, Mae West – all bit-players in the story of her incredible life.

Her anecdote about West is especially poignant. Having snubbed the aging, demanding diva just six weeks before she died, Rivers attended her funeral, to find she was virtually alone. ‘She had outlived her fame,’ she laments.

It’s clear that as she slips into her ‘anecdotage’ at the age of 75, Rivers is determined to avoid the same fate; and this two-hour almost uninterrupted monologue rails against media obsession with youth, justified by the dark arts of demographic research and audience focus groups, which she uses to explain her own cosmetic surgery. Sex appeal, she says, is a woman’s main weapon.

The redundant ‘play’ barely gets under way as Rivers is so desperate to confiding in us, sharing stories, opinions and salacious gossip, and she handles the gear-shifts effortlessly. Her bitchiness is a reminder of how sharp her comedy can be, sneeringly imagining Victoria Beckham to ponder: ‘Does this tampon make me look fat.’

In her stand-up, it’s the ceaseless tide of such fiercly pointed vitriol that builds up a momentum of its own, and having seen these glimpses of her sharpness, you’ll want to see her back in her original element. But no, she must continue with her autobiographical run down from struggling comic, to star, to Hollywood’s persona non grata, to grieving widow, to QVC jewellery hawker and Oscar-night maven.

She can be cloyingly schmaltzy – ‘This is a business of dreams,’ she opines, in all sincerity, before getting over-sentimental when singing the praises of her daughter Melissa – some episodes in her long life are glossed over and a few contrived links, such as getting us to beg for her original 1964 stand-up set, jar. Director Sean Foley still has a few kinks to iron out.

But Rivers is a damn fine storyteller, and can cover these flaws with the promise of more thoroughly engaging tales to come, enhanced by her frankness in both content and performance. She’s clearly out to show with an energy that belies her years what a battler she is, living proof that grit and determination will overcome even the most desperate of circumstances. In that, she’s an inspiration.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
London, September 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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