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April 19, 2015

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Hilarious, timely, personal: Lily Tomlin at her best


Leila Navidi

Comedian Lily Tomlin resurrects classic characters in her Las Vegas debut, but also introduces an elderly married couple she based on her parents.

If You Go

  • What: Lily Tomlin: “Not Playing With a Full Deck”
  • Where: Hollywood Theatre at MGM Grand
  • When: 8 p.m. tonight-Friday, 9:30 p.m. Saturday, 8 p.m. Nov. 15-1
  • Admission: $58.50-$80.50; 891-7800,

Beyond the Sun

Lily Tomlin is worried.

“I worry,” she says, “about being a success in a mediocre world.”

“I worry that we’ll become so overcrowded that loneliness will become a peak experience.”

“I worry that we’re writing a new chapter in American history — Chapter 11.”

I worry, too.

I worry that not enough of us realize how lucky we are to have someone as effervescently funny and quicksilver brilliant as comic actress Tomlin sharing her worries with us. I worry that her short-term engagement at the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand — unbelievably her first Vegas gig in a 40-year comedy career — is going to come and go, and that you’re going to miss it.

I worry that, for one reason or another, she’s not going to come back.

Like Chazz Palminteri’s recent run at the Palazzo with “A Bronx Tale,” Tomlin’s “Not Playing with a Full Deck” is a one-person show, inhabited by many characters. And like Palminteri’s performance, it’s a rare and welcome sign of intelligent life in our odd corner of the universe; what Tomlin is serving up is antithetical to the usual lowest-common-denominator diversions on offer here.

Eyes twinkling, beaming that wide, elastic smile, wearing a loose black V-neck tunic over black slacks, scampering around the stage with the nimble grace of a dancer, Tomlin is a poster child for the age of 70. (Pause for an aside: What is it with the frisky septuagenarians in this town? ... Leonard Cohen was skipping around the stage at the Colosseum last Thursday. In terms of vitality, he and Tomlin put most of us middle-agers to shame.)

Tomlin’s witty worrying is interrupted by the sudden appearance of classic characters. The sage street person Trudy ponders how language — and comedy — came to be. Suburban housewife Judith Beasley (“I am not a professional actress, I am a real person like yourselves”) does an effusive infomercial for a marital aid. Madame Lupe, “the world’s oldest living beauty expert,” shares advice (“Live by candlelight”) and her recipe for an instant face lift.

In one of many asides to the audience, sharing the inspiration or provenance of characters, Tomlin introduces the placid married couple Lud and Marie, confiding that she based the pair on her own parents. The elderly couple endlessly natter about a piece of cake, to the comic dismay of easily agitated adolescent Agnes Angst, a stand-in for Tomlin as a door-slamming Detroit teenager. “If any of you have teenagers, and they give you a hard time,” Tomlin says to the audience, “believe me, it is not you — it is definitely them.”

Of course, former telephone operator Ernestine makes a vivid appearance. Tomlin’s face pulls in toward her nose, as Ernestine snippily answers patient queries at a health care corporation — denying benefits with malicious glee (and that snorting laugh). “You must have thought HMO meant ‘help me out,’ ” she flippantly tells one supplicant. “Remember, an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” she tells another, before hanging up on him. “So does being uninsured.”

Of all these familiar characters, it’s Edith Ann who kills. Dwarfed by an oversized white rocking chair — Tomlin brought along the original prop from the late ’60s “Laugh-In” comedy show — Edith Ann fidgets and wriggles and dispenses the bracingly direct observations and wisdom of a 6-year-old. “I am not bossy,” Edith Ann protests. "My ideas are just better.”

“Where do babies come from,” one woman asks, when Edith Ann takes a few questions from the audience. “Lady, don’t you know?” Edith Ann answers. The next question, from a man: “Where do Republicans come from?”

Loose and limber, Tomlin is alert to the audience, gauging what’s working, whether we “got it.” Endearingly, she fluffs a few lines, breaks character, makes space for ad-libbed digressions. “You guys,” says Tomlin, interrupting one bit to glug a bottle of water, “I thought the desert would be the perfect place for my dry wit.”

Like most of Tomlin’s stage and TV shows, “Full Deck” was co-written with her life and creative partner Jane Wagner, and the tossed-off lines, suffused with love and concern for humanity, sparkle with aphoristic gems, crystallizing what many of us have been thinking. You might find yourself wanting to take notes.

“When does something stop being trendy and qualify as a disorder?” Tomlin muses. And “Before they get a reality show, they should have to prove that at some point they have actually been in touch with reality.”

Tomlin follows her final bows with a relaxed audience Q&A, which, on the night I saw the show, turned into a dish session about the TV shows (“Desperate Housewives,” “Damages”) Tomlin is working on.

I hope Tomlin returns to Vegas and stays awhile. And if and when she does, I’d like to see her go further, maybe develop some Vegas-based observations, comment on what is going on outside the showroom doors. Bite the hand a little. We can take it.

And that’s the truth. Pffththth.

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