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Why the beloved stand-up comic co-wrote herself a starring role in the Off-Broadway tuner Two's a Crowd
Over the past four decades, Rita Rudner has held her own in the upper echelons of comedy, mostly by being herself: a very funny but thoroughly nice person with a quirky perspective on life. But the sexagenarian didn't start out wanting to be a stand-up. At age 15, she left her unhappy family home in Miami and came to New York with musical theatre aspirations. She quickly booked a spot as a swing in a touring production of Zorba (headlined by John Raitt and Chita Rivera!), and a succession of Broadway gigs followed, including Promises, Promises; Follies; The Magic Show and Annie, in which she took over the role of Lily St. Regis.
But in her mid-twenties, Rudner had a brainstorm. "All of a sudden I thought, there are so many dancers and singers and actresses, but there are only two comediennes" -- Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, who would later become her good friends. "Why don't I try to be a comedienne? I won't have to be that good."
Underneath her wide-eyed, ditzy delivery, Rudner is incredibly disciplined. She intently studied her two favorite personality-driven comics -- Jack Benny and Woody Allen -- to help her develop her own act, and for the past 40 years, she's been making 'em laugh in books, on screen and especially on stage at comedy clubs around the world, notably in Las Vegas, where she performed the longest-running solo comedy show in the town's history. But her love of musical theatre never left her. That's why she's back singing and dancing at 59E59 Theaters in the escapist rom-com Two's a Crowd, co-created with her husband, British-born Martin Bergman, who also directs.
The spouses are longtime collaborators. In fact, they met on a job. "He hired me to be a comedian, and then …" she trails off. "This was before the #MeToo movement, so he can't bring charges against me." They've written several film scripts together, notably the 1992 dramedy Peter's Friends, starring Bergman's Cambridge Footlights comedy buddies Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, along with Rudner as a scene-stealing L.A. airhead princess.
Now the couple has written Rudner another plum part in Two's a Crowd: Wendy, a neurotic Cleveland wedding planner of a certain age with a cheating husband, who heads to Las Vegas on a whim. Because of a computer error, she's forced to share her room with Tom (Robert Yacko), a laid-back blue-collar poker player. Immediately the zingers fly in both speech and song (Jason Feddy wrote the numbers and also plays guitar with the three-piece band).
Wendy's unalloyed nastiness "is not something I could ever do in my act," admits Rudner. The character is verbally vicious ("Jethro" is among her milder epithets for Tom) and, chill as he is, he gives as good as he gets. Naturally, though, all that friction generates a bit of heat.
Rudner is enjoying setting aside her natural sweetness to play a pricklier part. She especially appreciates Wendy's willingness to venture into the unknown: "She's doing something she never thought she'd do in a million years!" says Rudner.
Rudner has taken that same try-anything approach to her career. "Every year I like to do something I never thought I would do, and this show is one of those things," she says. "Originally I wasn't even going to be in it, because I was working every night. And then I did a reading, actually at my daughter's school -- we hijacked her theatre -- and I thought, you know, maybe I can bring something to this. It's a challenge for me because, although I was on Broadway for 10 years before I did comedy, I'm just not in the habit of singing or acting or dancing or doing any of the things I used to do for a living. But I love challenges."
Two's a Crowd has heart in addition to humor. Beneath their bluster, Wendy and Tom are each coping with some pretty heavy trauma. What Rudner likes best about the script is that "it's cathartic yet fun. It shows that people can bounce back. As Wendy says, 'At some point, in every life, everyone gets punched by the universe.' I don't know anybody who's gone through life and said, 'No, that was easy -- no problems there!'"
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Two's a Crowd. Go here to browse our current offers.
Sandy MacDonald is a freelance theatre critic and Drama Desk nominator who contributes to TheaterNewsOnline.com, among others. Follow her at @sandymacdonald. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Rita Rudner in Two's a Crowd. Photo by Carol Rosegg.