Her performance in "Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends" at the Booth Theater through March 24 bears little comparison to Elaine Stritch's one-woman show at the Neil Simon Theater. Both are very funny shows, but Stritch is literally bearing her soul, finding humor in personal experiences that could only have been painful at the time of their happening.
Arthur, 78 to Stritch's 76, doesn't let her beehive-coiffed white hair down to that extent, but she does perform without shoes.
She explains that she took them off while an ankle healed after she sprained it falling into the orchestra pit at a Minneapolis Theater during a pre-Broadway tour of the show.
"It felt so good, I decided to keep them off," she said, stretching all 5-feet 9-½ inches of herself out in a wing chair, one of the few props on the stage.
When Arthur's material does turn autobiographic, it consists mostly of anecdotes told just for laughs, and her timing is perfect.
Most of the show is devoted to amusing stories about the theater, some off-color and at least one in perfectly awful taste, along with memories of encounters with legendary performers and put downs of a few such as choreographer Jerome Robbins ("really a dreadful human being") and actor Tony Curtis.
She tells about a job interview with Mae West, giving a hilarious imitation of West's famous body language. She recalls playing Lucy Brown in a 1953 revival of "Threepenny Opera" with Lotte Lenya, for whom she had unlimited admiration. Her story about the irrepressibly wicked Tallulah Bankhead indicates Arthur may have been in awe of her.
She salutes her many gay fans with a few campy stories and by voicing her approval of Vermont's granting legal recognition to same-sex couples. She plays up to fans of her television series, "Maude," with repeated use of the line "God will get you for that, Walter." And she pays tribute to her "dear friend" Angela Lansbury to whom she played best friend Vera Charles in "Mame" in 1966 on Broadway, a role that won Arthur a Tony Award.
Arthur talks through a lot of songs in the Rex Harrison manner, usually ending on a harmonious final note, but she can also belt a vaudeville number in the style of Sophie Tucker when she has to. One of her most charming renditions is the mock-naughty ballad, "The Man in the Moon is a Lady," from "Mame," and her heartfelt performance of Noel Coward's "I Happen to Like New York" gets tremendous audience response.
She is accompanied by an old friend, composer Billy Goldenberg, at the piano. He plays the sometimes-exasperated straight man who has no lines but says it all with a wink and a roll of his eyeballs heavenward.
Arthur brackets the evening with a detailed recipe for cooking lamb, which has nothing to do with anything that comes in between except to create a cozy atmosphere for an evening with your favorite eccentric aunt. She's certainly the kind of relative who, when she comes to visit for a weekend, you hope to keep around forever.
Bea Arthur was that sort of performer on television since she did her first guest turn on "All in the Family" in 1971 after more than 25 years in the theater. She won Emmy Awards for playing an outspoken suburban housewife on "Maude" and one of the four senior citizens living together in Florida in "Golden Girls," but she says her days in TV series are over.
From now on, she said in a recent interview, she intends to make only guest appearances like the one she made recently as a caustic baby sitter on "Malcolm in the Middle," winning herself another nomination for an Emmy.
Arthur's last stage appearance was in 1981 when she starred in a Woody Allen play, "The Floating Light Bulb," at Lincoln Center. But she is not one of those actresses who claim that acting before a live audience is all they ever wanted to do, even though they have had most of their career on television.
"That sort of attitude -- that somehow TV acting isn't as important as stage acting -- is very, very offensive to me," she said. "Most of us on the sitcoms were theater-trained, we were working with brilliant writers and brilliant directors and brilliant actors, so what was the step down?
"Someone once accused me of trying to turn the sitcom into an art form, and I really believe that's what I was trying to do."
What about the roles that got away? Arthur tells her audiences her favorite was Mama Rose in "Gypsy," and recalls seeing the first run-though of the show starring Ethel Merman in 1957.
"And now I'm to old for the role," she says with real regret.
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