Theater review: 'The Pee-wee Herman Show' at Club Nokia
Hello, Pee-wee! Boy, were you gone for a long time! It seemed like 400-billion-trillion years. Maybe even longer. I know you don’t like it when people pry into your personal life, so let me just say that it was swell to see you and the old gang of animate and inanimate (that means living and not living) chatterboxes again. (Hi, Chairry! You’re my favorite!)
Club Nokia is a pretty swanky address for “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” the new updated version of the old stage play that led to your becoming a household name. No, I didn’t just call you a dishwasher. I’m saying you’re famous. Or were famous. Or still are with people who love the '80s so much they want to marry the whole decade, even if they were barely born then and don’t know one song by Boy George.
Don’t get mad, Pee-wee, if something I say doesn’t sound like a compliment. One of my jobs as a critic is to make richer, more talented people feel bad about themselves. But I think your character is genius. And if you don’t like my words you can always put your fingers in your ears and say “La, la, la, la, la, la, la….”
First, let me say you’ve hardly changed. Still as lanky as ever, even if I could tell that puberty passed you by eons ago. My mean friend (even worse than bicycle-stealing Francis) asked me whether you had plastic surgery. I’m going to say no. I don’t even think you had Botox. But time doesn’t stop for anyone, not even for those hiding out in the eternal childhood of your colorful Puppetland universe, like Lynne Marie Stewart’s character Miss Yvonne, who now looks like Miss Yvonne’s mother.
Your outgrown gray suit should have tipped me off to this basic fact of biology. The outfit doesn’t fit you any worse than before -- it’s still short in the sleeves and tight and high in the legs. But your voice has gotten older. And that wiry body that was like a dancing marionette in its prime has slowed down. If I were a poet, I could write an ode titled “On Seeing Pee-wee Herman A Quarter-Century Later” and make the whole world cry. But as I’m just a critic, I’ll skip that. And anyway, the whole age thing adds to the campy effect, though I kind of wish you had played with it and not just let me notice it on my own.
I loved the beginning of your show best. When you walked on stage and said, “Good morning, boys and girls,” and then made us all stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance, it was like being back in elementary school, except with a teacher who might do something crazy at any minute. A teacher who maybe you later found out spent a little time behind bars! I think I got that impression when you mentioned that the show was being brought to us by yourself and Bud Light. That line made everyone crack up!
The playhouse is still so beautiful! It's like what the board game Candy Land would be if it were a house. You’ve always had incredible taste, Pee-wee, and scenic designer David Korins captures the old kitschy magic. (Could I come over to play with all the talking puppets on a rainy El Nino day like today?) Oh, and just the look of Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes tickled me, especially when Phil LaMarr, who plays Cowboy Curtis, walked out in purple and white chaps that made him look like one of the Village People on New Year's Eve.
Alex Timbers, who runs the really cool New York-based company Les Freres Corbusier, was a great choice of directors. He gets the madness and knows how to be deadpan about it. But I wish you (a.k.a. dorky Paul Reubens) and your co-writer Bill Steinkellner (working with additional material by John Paragon) could have delivered a better script. A half-hour into the show I started wondering whether this was going to be like watching three back-to-back episodes of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” I know that the show is a cult TV classic, and nostalgia junkies probably watch 10 of them in a row on DVD. (Many of them were in your audience on Wednesday night, laughing louder than the world’s loudest laugh track.) But the show started to feel like a really long rerun.
OK, time for me to say something nice again: The movie clips were inspired, Pee-wee! I especially liked the vintage 1950s educational film about Mr. Bungle and the importance of good manners at school. While I was watching, I got a glimpse into those repressive forces that went into making your character feel safe and unruly at the same time. You didn’t just come out of nowhere, Pee-wee, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who could say, “Pee-wee, c’est moi.”
That’s French, by the way, for "Pee-wee is me." Yes, after all these years and a humongous sex scandal (which I know I’m not supposed to mention, but I can’t help it), the figure you created has an uncanny hold on us. More for adults than children, who wouldn’t get any of the ever-so-slightly salacious double-entendres (translation: dirty jokes) even if they would definitely appreciate your refusal to grow up into a boring adult.
I wish “The Pee-wee Herman Show” was a little less reheated. Still, I’m glad you came back. I know you’re trying to make a big pile of money and get a movie deal (good luck on both fronts!). But as far as I'm concerned, this marks the restart of a beautiful old friendship.
-- Charles McNulty
Follow him on Twitter @charlesmcnulty
"The Pee-wee Herman Show," Club Nokia @ L.A. LIVE, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. Schedule varies (Info. at www.peewee.com). Ends Feb. 7. $29.50-$125. (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Photos: Top: Conky the robot and Paul Reubens. Bottom: Phil LaMarr and Reubens. Credit: Bret Hartman / For The Times