New York

Jack Benny!

Those who are unfamiliar with the original Jack Benny television program of the late ’50s and early ’60s may be pardoned for thinking that composer John Moran and the Ridge Theater Company have performed a distorting deconstructivist exercise on a hapless cultural cliché. The Jack Benny Show, however, was itself skewed to an amazing degree. The theme of most segments was the effort by the host, Benny, to “put on a show”—which his regular cast and guest stars often deliberately prevented him from doing. Endless and repetitive interruptions, ad -libs, and digressive chatter about personal problems took up most of the on-air time. A great deal of the program’s humor came not from its stale vaudeville jokes, but from Benny’s continually frustrated efforts.

For Jack Benny!, Moran has taken this aspect of the original show and run with it. His one-act, three-scene chamber opera is performed to a score made from a drastically altered version of the original program’s soundtrack. The actors lip-sync the dialogue and mime actions to fit these taped sound effects. But Jack Benny! is much more than a clever, East Village club sketch; it features some of the weirdest glosses imaginable on Benny and his stock company of caricaturish sidekicks. From the presentation of two Hindu godheads writhing behind Don Wilson’s routines to the child violin prodigy who dances with Benny to a heavy metal riff; from the Heckle-and-Jeckel-like technicians who are continually losing control of the show to the showgirl-turned-stripper who undresses a stocking-and-garter clad Wilson; from the manic members of Benny’s fan club to a black Dennis Day (in a perverse twist, there is no Rochester), Jack Benny! trafficks in some of the most genuinely bizarre imagery I’ve ever seen in a performance work. While often hilarious, the piece gives off an aura of ineffable strangeness.

Jack Benny! is punctuated by actual period television commercials, played between sketches on monitors at each side of the playing area. In these electronic time capsules, grooming products (hairspray, mouthwash, toothpaste) offer consumers the opportunity for social success. The ads present attitudes that, at first look, seem ludicrous in their naive coupling of product and emotion; in one case, a female Listerine user receives a wedding ring right after gargling. But just as the vaudevillian aspect of the original Jack Benny program masked its subversive subtext, these dramatic vignettes of the ’50s also reveal the anxiety in postwar commodity culture. Like Jack Benny! as a whole, their apparently innocuous surfaces stir up associations as disturbing as they are comical.

John Howell