Lisa Loopner. Roseanne Roseannadanna. Baba Wawa. TV-watchers of the ’70s will know instantly that I’m talking about Gilda Radner, the wonderful comic actress whose vibrant presence as these characters and many more brightened the first Saturday Night Live ensemble. On a show where female performers were often under-utilized, Radner was a genuine star. It was her warmth as much as her humor that beguiled us, so when she died at age 42 of ovarian cancer, even audiences who never met her felt as if they’d lost a friend.
For Radner’s legions of fans, Bunny Bunny — Alan Zweibel’s memoir play, which is receiving a skillful, affectionate production by 1812 — will be self-recommending.
For Zweibel, the loss was personal. He met Radner on SNL (he was a fledgling writer), and for the remainder of their lives they shared a deep friendship that almost but never quite became a romance (think When Harry Met Sally, minus the happy ending). Given the context, it’s unsurprising that his recollections take the form of a series of quirky-funny vignettes focused on the two of them.
The show, then, stands or falls on the two leads. Leah Walton (Gilda) looks enough like Radner to convince, and, more important, is a charismatic, talented performer in her own right. Matt Pfeiffer (Alan) reminded me of both Patton Oswalt and Woody Allen — in this context, that’s a good thing.
The touching script has its flaws. As you might expect from an SNL writer, some episodes work better than others, and some go on too long. A third actor is deployed to play nearly two dozen antic supporting characters — an unnecessary, cartoonish distraction from the core story. But ultimately, the sweetness and spirit of this love letter to Radner win the day.
Through Oct. 27, Independence Studio on 3, Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., 215-592-9560, 1812Productions.org.
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