"Oh, please!" the actor barks from center stage, with emphatically swishy (or swishily emphatic) indignation.

Not big enough, says director Shelly Garrett, governing this "Living Room" rehearsal in a sharp red-and-black sweat suit. Do it bigger, he says, "real exaggerated." Like this: "Oh, puh-leez!"

The scene backs up. The second performer, a woman, cues the young man: "You mean you're a father?"

"Puh-leez!" the actor says, the syllables flying out into a nearly empty Constitution Hall.

"You're not hitting that 'please' hard enough," Garrett insists.

They back it up again. "You mean you're a father?"



When the actor does his exit, Garrett instructs him to do it again, this time with an even more pronounced sway -- "long, feminine, hard switching." The actor complies, and seems liable to dislocate a hip as he crosses the stage. "There you go," Garrett says.

This is Shelly Garrett's brand of comedy. It's unapologetically "broad" -- and unbelievably overblown, even given that. And it's responsible for perhaps the most unusual theatrical success of recent years -- "Beauty Shop." Designed to appeal to black women (it has a male stripper and everything), "Beauty Shop" sold out 21 of 22 performances last winter at the 3,200-seat Constitution Hall.

Garrett's follow-up farce hasn't been doing so hot. A "Living Room" matinee scheduled for today had to be canceled for lack of advance ticket sales. (After shows last weekend and last night, "Living Room" will close out its engagement at Constitution Hall tonight and tomorrow night.)

" 'Beauty Shop' is 3 years old," Garrett explains. "This show is 5 months old, so I don't expect it to be doing the business 'Beauty Shop' is. But it will, believe me. It just takes time, and the word-of-mouth has to get around all over the country like it did with 'Beauty Shop.' "

Garrett also acknowledges that "Living Room" -- a 2 1/2-hour celebration of marital bickering and extramarital flirtation -- needs "fine-tuning." You probably couldn't tell by the reaction of the decent-sized crowd a week ago. By the end, folks were rocking forward with laughter at all the high jinks. We're talking eye-popping double takes, flailing drunken staggering, insults like "You tired, tight-butt snake!" and occasional seat-scratching and roach-stomping.

Hard to believe "Living Room" was actually a drama (its author, Charles Michael Moore, retains the writer's credit) before Garrett turned it into "Shelly Garrett's Living Room."

The success of "Beauty Shop" was enough to boggle the minds of mainstream theater critics. "Never have so many derived so much from so little," wrote a Los Angeles Times reviewer last year, reporting that "the laughter never stopped."

"By the usual American (meaning Anglo-European) standards," she continued, " 'Beauty Shop' is a sentimental, poorly structured, badly directed, unevenly performed, self-congratulating show. But where is it written that those standards fit? You might as well apply the laws of physics to Dante's 'Inferno.' "

Not exactly a rave. But at least Garrett was able to lift "... the laughter never stopped" and turn it into a promotional blurb inside the program for "Living Room."

"The critics have talked about 'Beauty Shop' so bad, 'Beauty Shop' shouldn't even be onstage, to let them tell it," Garrett says, relaxing in his hotel suite after Thursday night's rehearsal. "But people line up around the block to see it. Somebody likes it." He estimates "Beauty Shop" has brought in $10 million at the box office, and ABC is building a sitcom, "New Attitudes," around it.

The criticism "angered me at first," he says. "It still does, a bit. 'Beauty Shop' is my baby. But I have come to the conclusion that many critics are coming looking for a very, very sophisticated show. This is not a 'Les Miserables.' This is not a 'Phantom.' This is a show where you just come and let your hair down, loosen your girdle, kick your shoes off under your chair, and just sit back and laugh."

Consider his own taste in comedies. " 'Sanford and Son' used to make me laugh out loud," Garrett says, "because {Redd Foxx} used to do so many unexpected things. LaWanda Page playing Aunt Esther, she would say the most unexpected things in the world, and I would just holler out loud."

Hey, all the aesthetic nitpicking in the world doesn't amount to squat when you've got those two huge, custom-designed buses -- or "coaches," as Garrett prefers -- that brought him and his business staff into town Thursday from Chicago, where "Beauty Shop" is now playing. Those twin behemoths turned quite a few heads as they rolled from the auditorium to the Park Hyatt.

Inside Garrett's coach are three berths, each with its own compact disc player, as well as a CD up front. At the communications center in the back, there are three color TV screens with their own VCRs, and a fax machine.

In big, fancy lettering around the outside of the bus, it says "Shelly Garrett Entertainment." Seven show titles are listed, though only three of the shows have actually been created. (On the drawing board: his first drama, "Black and Battered," a courtroom piece about abused women in which the audience will decide the verdict, and "Ecstasy," "an array of different love scenes -- not vulgar scenes, love scenes with a lot of class -- featuring male exotic dancers," Garrett says. "Huge, fabulous sets. It's a woman's dream.")

Until five years ago, this 43-year-old writer, producer and director was a Los Angeles actor, doing bit roles in TV shows such as "Kojak," "The Rockford Files" and "Gimme a Break." His theater work was limited to Equity-waiver shows -- 99-seaters max.

"When I was doing TV, I would hang out and watch the directors and the producers and the lighting people... . I knew I wanted to do something behind the scenes," Garrett says, "because it was so creative back there."

He tells of performing in a play and suggesting changes in his lines, which infuriated the director, who was also the playwright. Garrett figured he could do better. His first play, "Snuff and Miniskirts," was staged in 1985 in an Equity-waiver theater. It was about the lives of the disc jockeys at a black radio station. Even on a small stage, "Snuff and Miniskirts" relied on broad, physical gags, Garrett says. But apparently he hadn't yet perfected his formula. The show died.

The inspiration for Garrett's second play is something of a legend. He was having a manicure in a beauty shop when a woman in a housecoat walked in and said to the employees, "Which one of you sluts is fooling around with my husband?"

After a failed first attempt at mounting "Beauty Shop," Garrett raised $15,000 in 1988, reworked the show, punched up the gags and quickly started building an audience. (Five of the investors have sued Garrett, saying they haven't seen a nickel yet. He explains that the accounting process "takes a long time. Whatever is due them, they'll get it. And they should.")

One key to Garrett's success on the road with "Beauty Shop" was his unconventional marketing strategy. "I went to black radio, because I know black people listen to the radio. We love our music," he says, smiling. "I would buy up a lot of spots. I had it all set in my mind: 17 days. I want 17 days of hard radio" before opening night.

"First of all, I had to know who my audience was," Garrett says. "I'm going after black women between the ages of 25 and 54. That's who I want sitting in my seats."

"Beauty Shop" has also been bolstered by repeat business. "You have people who will say, 'I love the show. You should go see it,' " Garrett says. "That's not good enough for me." He wants them to come back too.