Review: “Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, A Sort Of Love Story” (Mercury Theater)

Jackson Evans and Dana Tretta/Photo: Mercury Theater Chicago.

Gilda Radner was the sort of performer that inspired instant endearment. Playing fearless, obnoxious, breakable characters so specifically that she vaulted past type or genre — she was her own. A singular sort of comedic presence that women rarely got to be in her pocket of history.

With a piece like “Bunny Bunny” from author and industry veteran Alan Zweibel, we’re no closer to understanding what motivated, troubled or inspired her uniqueness; all we know from Mercury Theater’s production is Radner’s effect on one anxious, self-doubt riddled man. There’s a deep complexity and pain in their subject that “Bunny Bunny” is not equipped to explore, so (as is the case with most comedy), Zweibel and director Warner Crocker ask us to bear with them as they filter her life through the male gaze.

In 1975, while waiting to audition for a live-televised late night comedy show no one had ever heard of, a young Gilda Radner (Dana Tretta) shrewdly grabbed writer Alan Zweibel (Jackson Evans) from the potted plant he was cowering behind, and launched both their careers simultaneously. It was simple, he’d write for her each week, and she’d mug for the cameras. Who could have known just how naturally they’d gravitate together, outlasting various romantic partners, fame, pitfalls, addiction, and sickness in each other’s lives?  

Jackson Evans and Dana Tretta/Photo: Mercury Theater Chicago.

But while Zweibel is desperate to define their relationship, confess his love, and lasso himself to the funniest, most radiant star in his orbit, Radner remains just beyond his grasp. As narrator, Zweibel assigns Radner a manic pixie aloofness, but any woman watching with a mind of her own (and no obligation to tell you what’s on it) could argue Zweibel oozes unwitting sexism. The kind that keeps insisting itself, mounting pressure on a supportive but troubled woman, preventing him from ever regarding her as a person apart from him.

The highest accolades belong to performers Dana Tretta, a sly and persistently sunny (even through pain) Gilda Radner, bouncing off of Jackson Evans as an ever-panicked bundle of neuroses, Alan Zweibel. They are a joy to watch, as well as Jason Grimm (billed as ‘Everyone Else’), who appears anytime our duo could use a doorman, street vendor, or divorcee riddled with quirks. Grimm does his best with what he’s given, but I don’t take great joy in trotting out a man in a dress or increasingly funny hats for an easy laugh. While early Saturday Night Live is packed with everyday oddballs played to cartoonish effect, it becomes overkill here. That really is the crux of the problem with  “Bunny Bunny”: what these performers could use is material that will do them justice, and a story that has something more poignant to say about its title character.

With this production, Zweibel is assuming we’ve already boned up on Radner’s work and struggles, so he’s not going to bore us with all the emotional details. Surely everyone’s seen an episode or two of Saturday Night Live, so we can speed past the comedy (except one glorious comedy song, “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals”), and just take his word that she’s a funny spitfire.

What takes precedence in Zweibel’s story is not Radner herself, but the joys and annoyances she adds to his life, and the path that she sets him on with each moment of acceptance, or each romantic spurn. I mean, what truly matters: one woman’s struggle with bulimia and ovarian cancer, or how much worry Zweibel must devote to her because of them? What’s more interesting: that Radner struggled with intimacy and insecurity in all of her romantic relationships, or that Zweibel really wanted to sleep with her, and she told him no?

I’m so incensed by this show’s entire premise, I don’t have wherewithal to speak nicely anymore: How dare you lure me in with promises of a woman I admire deeply, then treat me to a buffet of your wounded male feelings? Please return this script to the Woody Allen Institute for Hapless Boys for re-tooling immediately.

DICE RATING: d8 — Not Bad, Not Great

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Cool memoir, bro, but Gilda Radner deserves so much better.

Show: Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, A Sort Of Love Story

Company: Mercury Theater

Venue:  Mercury Theater (3745 N. Southport Ave.)