In Hollye Leven's new rock 'n' roll musical, "Funny Business," comedians vie for attention at a seedy nightclub. They include Will, an intellectual African American, whose producers want him to be just "a little more black"; Art (Will Durst), whose career is so dead, if it were "a toe, there'd be a tag on it"; and Hannah (Iris Bahr), whose mom is an Israeli New York Jew. "You piss her off, she'll not only make you feel guilty, she'll give you the finger and bulldoze your house down," Hannah says.
The innovative production stars real comics, such as the Israeli-born Bahr, who perform parts of their act in the show. It's the latest riff on comedians turning their work into theater (think Julie Sweeney's "And God Said Ha!").
Leven, who first became fascinated by comics while working nightclubs as a musician, was adamant about using real comedians in the show.
"Stand-up is a very specific art form, and the people who can do it are a special breed," said the 49-year-old Jewish playwright ("Polo Lounge"). "They're like our oral historians, commenting on what's happening at a particular time in society."
The approximately 80 comics she interviewed as research were also like "an adult class of emotionally disturbed children"; during taped sessions, they'd insist she avoid the dark-side-of-the-clown cliché, then described mind-numbingly miserable childhoods. The author identified because she, too, had a difficult childhood, growing up with a mother incapacitated by multiple sclerosis.
"I loved the way they used comedy as a survival tool," she said.
But working with comics has its challenges, as Leven discovered during workshop productions since 1991.
"They're not known for being team players," she said. "They all think they can do it funnier, but their suggestions usually make them the lead."
Director Sue Wolf, who's worked on stand-up shows for HBO, handles such situations with humor: "I'll say, 'If I were directing this play ..." she said. She uses her understanding of how each comic gets laughs to help them with character work.
It also helps that the show includes hilarious real-life stories from Leven's interviews; one example is the scene in which a racist producer asks Art if his surname is Jewish.
"That's just my stage name," he retorts. "I changed it from Hitler."
The show opens May 9 at the Coronet Theatre: (310) 657-7377.