At first, actress/comedian Whoopi Goldberg brings to mind a synthesis of Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. But after you watch her for a while, Whoopi Goldberg brings to mind Whoopi Goldberg. She is an original and the five monologues she presents tonight in "Whoopi Goldberg Direct From Broadway" (10 p.m. on HBO) are flaky, funny, gritty, bizarre and quite unexpectedly touching.
The telecast is an hour's encapsulation of Goldberg's one-woman show last season at the Lyceum Theatre, where she was taped in full action. Predictably, the camera jumps back and forth between performer performing and spectators spectating, and there's a cutesy prologue showing Goldberg backstage, as she goes from dressing room to dressing room, checking in with each of the five characters she is going to play on stage. Fortunately, this kind of trickery is kept to a minimum.
The real trickery is Goldberg's ability to create believable people out of the flotsam and jetsam of life, and then build around those lost souls a whole world. For that, a close-up suffices. The cast of characters is drawn from the ranks of the maimed, the tripped-out or the socially disadvantaged, but invariably Goldberg finds that bit of emotion that connects each of them with the rest of humanity.
Like Tomlin, who portrayed a paraplegic in her one-woman show, Goldberg depicts a handicapped woman whose arm and leg are severely gnarled and whose head nestles up against her own shoulder. "This," she observes in a dry rasp, "is not a disco body." Nonetheless, she tells us, she has met a man, who took her dancing, then took her swimming, and then came right out and proposed marriage. "Normal must be in the eye of the beholder," she concludes in amazement. Goldberg makes similar beholders out of all of us, obliging us to recognize the normal in the abnormal, the common in the seemingly uncommon.
Destiny takes some of her characters for a frankly surrealistic ride. In one sketch, a Jamaican curio peddler comes to the United States as a maid and doxy, and ends up inheriting a $20 million fortune and a replica of Tara from the grizzled boss she calls "the old raisin." In another, Fontaine, a street-wise junkie and petty thief, takes off on a holiday to Amsterdam, where unknowingly he wanders into the Anne Frank house and experiences a hip conversion.
Sometimes, however, it is the very banality of their plight -- pushed to the limits -- that makes them distinctive, like the California chick who prefers to be known as a surfer, not a Valley Girl, "because before there was the mall, there was the ocean, okay?" As she chats on airily, we learn that this bubble head is, one, pregnant, two, 13 and, three, pathetically lost. Brilliantly, Goldberg plays the character against the grain -- asserting her feeble independence and cheerfully assuring us that she'll be right there on the sea wall if ever we want to drop by.
A desire to be like everyone else motivates the 6-year-old black girl who has taken to wearing a white shirt on her head so that she will have "long, luxurious blond hair" to match all the actresses on TV. "You gotta have long hair to get on 'The Love Boat,' " she explains. The more she chats with the audience, however, the more she realizes that nobody looks like the people on TV. ("Who do those people look like?" she finally asks with just a suggestion of pique.) By the end, she has decided she can face the future without her shirt, which puts her one step ahead of Linus.
Deep down, "Whoopi Goldberg Direct From Broadway" is such a sweet and generous show that it seems irrelevant to point out that her characters occasionally use the vernacular of the gutter. If they're soiled, they're only soiled around the edges. Their mouths may require washing out now and again. But their souls are innocent and their hearts are pure.