Red Noses
Birth Mark. By Jeff Raz and Jael Weisman. Directed by Weisman. Performed by Raz. At the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), through May 30. Call 826-5750.

Please Leave the Bronx. Sketch comedy troupe featuring Lindsey Brown, Melinda Whitehouse, Christian Lukkas, David Chambers, and Ben Burke. At the Mock Cafe, 1074 Valencia (at 22nd Street), May 14 only. Call 826-5750.

Razz the Clown is a pear-shaped, red-nosed member of the New Pickle Circus, played by a mild-mannered Jewish guy named Jeff Raz. Depending on whether or not you believe his disclaimer at the beginning of Birth Mark, his new solo show at the Marsh, Jeff Raz either is or isn't his own main character. He comes on in a sober shirt and belted khakis to tell us the play is "entirely fictional," but instead of disappearing backstage again to let the lights lower and maybe get into the clown costume he's wearing in all the press photos, he slips right into the story. This deliberate blurring of the line between fiction and its alternative is only the start of a skillful, funny show.

Raz weaves questions of identity into a story about Jewishness and adopting a kid. He starts with an anecdote about a one-man play featuring "King Oedipusco," an anti-Semite born with a red nose that marks him (in Raz's alternative world) as a Jew. Oedipusco's birth mark, along with a missed lighting cue, becomes a motif for the rest of the story. The point of the opening anecdote is that a woman named Sarah forgets to darken the stage at a crucial moment. Later she tells Jeff, "I really didn't forget your cue. I didn't think you needed it," and later still she becomes his wife.

After their wedding Sarah and Jeff begin slogging through the adoption process for an unborn, un-Jewish son. Raz calls up all the necessary characters with a minimum of props (a chair, a drink table, a pair of glasses, a scarf that becomes a seat belt as well as a baby) and crisp, efficient writing. His acting is also clean -- without being brilliantly vivid but also without strain he can slip from rabbi to Jewish aunt to nerdy college student to a whining, 12-year-old girl.

"In the old days, you never thought about meeting the birth mother," says the adoption agent who advises Sarah and Jeff. But those days, he continues, are gone. "Now she is the seller, you are the buyer -- and let me tell you, it's a seller's market." So Jeff and Sarah write a careful letter to the mother of the fetus they want to adopt, using the word "love" five times (on the agent's advice) and carefully not mentioning that Jeff is a clown. The birth mother turns out to be a coarse-mouthed woman with a pubescent daughter and no money for another kid. Her name is Randy, and this is where Raz's modest talent for voices falls apart, because at first it's not clear whether Randy is a man or a woman. But it is clear that she wants to give her baby to the first kind couple she meets, and before Jeff or Sarah can make up their minds -- a month before the baby is due -- Randy induces labor.

When it's over Randy gives a twisted smile of satisfaction at being finally done with the fetus, and Raz's impression of a woman behaving so cavalierly with her own flesh and blood has an effective eerie tinge. He ends with a comic bris, where the ordeal of circumcising the adopted son of a lapsed Jew and his converted-to-Judaism wife turns into a circus, a Northern California comedy of manners; and that weird red-nose motif comes around one last time.

The most impressive part of Birth Mark is Raz's control, his careful splicing of clown routines into a basically serious show. Some of his lines are cliches ("Oy vey, he's marrying a shiksa!" says one of the relatives when he marries Sarah) and Raz's sense of control is sometimes too tight (he makes one terse reference to Sarah being pregnant, then never explains or even suggests what went wrong). But overall it's a fine piece of solo theater -- that maligned genre -- from a clown who manages to deal with identity without seeming self-conscious.

Somewhere Gore Vidal bashes political-pundit TV shows by saying the debates could get lower only if the networks found a way to serve cocktails to viewers. This tactic isn't absolutely impossible live, and I've finally found a show that uses it. Please Leave the Bronx's comedy revue has a skit about the Bourbon Monkey, who lurches from backstage with a bottle of Jack to hand shots around to the cast before offering a few to the audience. Hefty bottles of liquor also sit near the door, along with some disgusting nosh (Chex and marshmallows), and on opening night it wasn't at all clear that these were just for the cast party afterward.

The hourlong show is pretty much what you would expect if a bunch of your friends put on a comedy revue -- shticky and bizarre. There's an "Excellent Man's Wild Kingdom" segment, featuring a kangaroo with big inflatable boxing gloves, an electric eel, and an animal called Gallagher, consisting of a man who looks vaguely like the comedian called Gallagher from 10 or 15 years ago dressed in a beret and women's tights and no underwear. (Did Gallagher really dress like that?) There's also a skit featuring "Mr. Heat Miser," from a stop-action Christmas special 20-odd years ago ("I'm Mr. Heat Miser/ I'm Mr. Hundred-and-One"), which I admit to not remembering very well.

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