Lily Tomlin - NYCB Theatre at Westbury, 3.22.15


by Michael Sherer
Posted: Apr 2015
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Lily Tomlin - photo by Michael Sherer

Lily Tomlin - photo by Michael Sherer

Lily Tomlin is a true talent and a veteran force in a comedy world that has far more men than women in its stand up milieu. Tomlin is an equally talented actress and can play any type. She’s also an accomplished writer and producer.

This performance was strictly stand up, and Tomlin was all alone. Daunting indeed, but if Tomlin felt that, it didn’t show at all. The round stage at Westbury is a rotating one, so that everyone will get a frontal view. It was stationary for this show though, which was a matinee. The 3,000 seat theater is an ideally sized one, and has great ambiance and acoustics. With ample parking, the venue is very convenient for driving to.

The only items on stage were a chair and small set of a few stairs. It’s Tomlin’s far ranging set of experiences, wit and charm that she pulls material from. This is especially the case with the myriad of characters that Tomlin has created since the late ‘60’s. They include Ernestine, a telephone operator with a 1940’s hair style in a hairnet. She’s nosy and condescending, and generally treats customers with little sympathy. She snorts when cracking jokes at their expense.

Another is Edith Ann. She’s a five and-a-half year old who’s highly precocious. She philosophizes on everyday life and provides solutions to all sorts of problems. She often ends her monologues with “And that’s the truth,” punctuating it with a noisy raspberry. Edith Ann does all this while sitting in an over-sized rocking chair, so that Tomlin will appear child-sized, while clutching her rag doll, Doris. A common theme of discussion is home life with her bickering parents and bullying older sister, Mary Jean. (Lily Tomlin’s given birth names). Edith Ann has a very large, frenetic dog named Buster and a boyfriend named Junior Phillips.

Then there’s Mrs. Judith Beasley. She’s a housewife and mother from Calumet City, Illinois, who is often selected for television commercials and offers “good consumer advice.” She appears in the film The Incredible Shrinking Woman as the lead character’s neighbor.

Another is The Tasteful Lady. She’s a rather apolitical, prudish, prissy, conservatively dressed middle-aged woman who dispenses advice on gracious and elegant living.

These characters were all played out by Tomlin, and also shown on a screen behind her in the form of archival footage. Another very funny character of Tomlin’s that was shown on the screen but not done live during this show was Tommy Velour, a mustached, untalented Las Vegas headliner that laughs at his own jokes while smoking and drinking constantly. He thinks he’s talented but actually isn’t.

Tomlin was one of the first female comedians to venture into risque male drag with her characters. In ‘82, she premiered Pervis Hawkins, a black rhythm-and-blues soul singer with a mustache, beard and close-cropped afro hairstyle. Dressed in a three-piece suit, Hawkins is a class act. Tomlin donned very little, if any, skin-darkening makeup as part of the character, as she instead used stage lighting to create the effect.

Tomlin, 75, is still very sharp with the great timing that she’s always had, although a few times she said to the audience that she lost track of what she was saying, and someone in the crowd would remind her. Telling several stories of growing in Detroit and of her family, Tomlin has a down-to-earth, personable quality that’s quite appealing. Adding to that is a very hearty laugh. Tomlin writes all of her own material, along with long time partner, both creatively and romantically, Jane Wagner. (They married in ‘13.) Tomlin briefly addressed her lesbianism during the performance, but it’s never been something that she discusses at length as far as I know.

After returning for an encore at the show’s end, Tomlin sat and answered questions from the audience that were written on cards. One was what she thought she would have done in life had she not first broke out on television’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In as a cast member from ‘70 - ‘73. Tomlin replied by saying “You know that diner up the street?” Thankfully, Tomlin didn’t wait tables with her life. Instead she turned them by being a trail blazer for women with her multitude of talents, ambition and resourcefulness. Here’s to you, Lily.