The Pee-wee Herman Show -- Theater Review

Fri Nov 12, 2010 1:53am EST
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By David Rooney

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - The shrunken suit, tiny bow tie and white loafers have turned up everywhere thanks to Thom Browne and his imitators, but the impish man-child created more than 30 years ago by Paul Reubens remains one of a kind.

When Pee-wee Herman steps onto the stage of Broadway's newly rechristened Stephen Sondheim Theater and barks, "Good morning, boys and girls" the roar of fans transported back to their childhood or college stoner days is deafening. It gets even louder when the curtain goes up on David Korins' deliriously tricked-out update of original designer Gary Panter's iconic Playhouse set.

Three decades have done nothing to blunt the edges of Reubens' inspired characterization of the ADHD poster boy, channeling both the joy and bratty capriciousness of childhood.

He greets each new toy, prank or wild scheme with honking laugh and flapping arms, but his exuberant mood darkens into sullenness whenever instant gratification is denied him. And woe unto anyone who challenges his place as the coolest (in his own mind), cleverest kid in the room. The deadly laser stare he shoots Chairry, his anthropomorphized, baby-blue armchair, for making one smart-aleck crack too many, says it all.

Alex Timbers (also represented on Broadway with the historical mockumusical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) strikes the right overstimulated note in his direction, darting from one bit of business to the next without worrying too much about the flimsy connective thread. Lag time is plugged with shameless filler like an extended balloon gag or an amusing 1950s Coronet Instructional Film on good manners, redubbed with incongruous sound effects.

In addition to Chairry, most of the human and puppet regulars from the cult 1980s CBS Saturday morning kids' show Pee-wee's Playhouse return. They include original cast members John Moody as Mailman Mike, John Paragon as Jambi the Genie and the sublime Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, the "most beautiful woman in puppetland," who compensates for the additional miles on the dial with even bigger hair.

As always, the faux-innocence is peppered with sexual innuendo, campy references, pop-cultural esoterica and sly nods to subjects outside the frame of children's entertainment, such as gay marriage or government surveillance - "It makes us all safer, Pee-wee," responds Mailman Mike when Pee-wee asks why his letters have been opened.

Wearing an abstinence ring to protect him from "love and all that creepy stuff," Reubens also acknowledges his fall from grace -- his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure in a Florida porn theater -- with a mischievous wink and veiled masturbation allusions.   Continued...