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Whoopi Takes the Long Way Back Home

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page C01

Whoopi Goldberg's new "Back to Broadway" special isn't just for people who like Whoopi Goldberg. No, it's for people who love Whoopi Goldberg -- love her almost as much as life itself.

At an unforgivable 87 minutes, it's especially for those who just can't get enough of her, although even they may have second thoughts as Whoopi passes the one-hour mark and keeps on a-whoopin'.

Goldberg's HBO special tonight marks the 20th anniversary of her solo Broadway show. (Patrick Harbron)

The full title of the HBO comedy concert, premiering tonight at 10, is "Whoopi: Back to Broadway -- The 20th Anniversary." Yes, it's been two whole decades since Goldberg premiered her one-woman show, produced by Mike Nichols, and because we celebrate the anniversary of everything these days -- even the anniversaries of anniversaries -- here comes Whoopi essentially paying tribute to herself and to her colorful, unpredictable career.

Goldberg may have made her first big splash as a stand-up comic, and a very bawdy one, but her great talent has always been as an actress, only she just didn't know it -- or else she insisted that the world marvel at her versatility. The fact is, her comedy material, written (at least for this special) by herself, can be weak and wobbly. And pitifully unsophisticated. Here, for example, is her lacerating political commentary on George W. Bush:

"I always thought that in order to be president of the United States, you had to be smart . . . but apparently not. You can be dumb as dirt and still be president."

Now wait a minute. That isn't even a joke. It's a simplistic sentiment -- "George W. Bush is dumb'' -- contrived to make audience members in the theater, at least the Bushwhackers among them, nod in agreement and applaud and cluck and chuckle about how witty Whoopi is. Frankly, Whoopi doesn't come off any smarter than she thinks Bush is with material like that. It isn't comedy, it's schoolyard jeering.

Goldberg's performance is more than a long soliloquy. She divides the show into the ranting of three different characters whom she invented all those years ago. The first character is Fontaine, a sort of folksy drunk of the streets. The second is Lurleen, a sort of folksy crank of the streets. And the third, apparently unnamed, is a folksy bore of the streets distinguished by a physical disability or two. Goldberg does all three characters without special makeup or costuming, which sounds like a true achievement, but the fact is, the three women don't differ all that much one from another.

She might as well have called them Whoopi A, Whoopi B and Whoopi C.

Goldberg wades into dangerous waters when she brings up the subject of 9/11. She marvels in retrospect at how the president was informed of a cataclysmic tragedy and "just sat there" in response. Of course this was all covered by Michael Moore in "Fahrenheit 9/11." Goldberg saves herself by praising the troops, a sure-fire crowd pleaser. "These are just the greatest kids. These kids are amazing,'' she says of Americans serving in Iraq. True enough, but doesn't it smack just a wee little bit of demagoguery?

Certainly Goldberg has a face made for comedy, with those pinchable cheeks and cute granny glasses -- an endearing look of insistent irreverence. She has funny moments on the special, as when she imitates Condoleezza Rice alighting from Air Force One. Not only is that funny, but who else would ever have thought of doing it?

Goldberg also scores later with her comments on menopause and its depressing side effects: "You will never be the hottest thing in the room again." She resents, amusingly, getting repeated entreaties in the mail from AARP (for "retired persons") because she sees those ads as all but beckoning her to the grave. "Everybody's trying to push you toward The End," she sputters.

Inventive director Marty Callner, faced with the challenge of bringing something visually new to a one-person show, occasionally cuts to shots of Whoopi's hands -- expressive, arresting, even poetic. Obviously there is intelligence at work here, though Goldberg's may not be the most auspicious of the assemblage. Her greater triumphs will continue to be as a dramatic or comedic actress, reciting words written by better writers than she is.

She should remember that when the time comes around for her 40th anniversary. And even if she doesn't, 87 more minutes of mediocre comedy can probably be forgiven.

Whoopi: Back to Broadway -- The 20th Anniversary (90 minutes) airs tonight at 10 on HBO.

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