A New Lease on Life

This Wonderful Life isn't about saving a bank -- or Christmas

I'm not much for holiday entertainment. I skirt productions touting dancing sugarplums, velveteen rabbits, and little girls playing with matches. Choirs leave me cold. If I happen to know a few characters from It's a Wonderful Life, it's only because I watched it on the installment plan, a few minutes per year, contingent upon a direct order from any senior relatives on the couch.

So I was justifiably (but needlessly) wary of It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life, the latest production at the Phoenix Theatre. This is a comedy, a hilarious 70-minute romp written and acted by Fred Raker, an impressionist from the old school, meaning he might not have a Christopher Walken but look out for his Jack Benny. You'll be seeing a lot of Benny in this one-man show, as well as Jackie Mason, Phyllis Diller, and about 20 others, including Woody Allen hosting a nature program, John Wayne talking Yiddish, and Maxwell Smart working as a mohel (the guy who performs Jewish circumcisions).

If you haven't yet guessed, this Wonderful Life is not about saving a bank.

Fred Raker muses over his career failings in It 
Could Have Been a Wonderful Life.
Fred Raker muses over his career failings in It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life.

The show centers around Phil Resnick, a comic working dead rooms in Syracuse, N.Y. He heads for Hollywood after some questionable fatherly advice: Don't act too Jewish; be like Jack Benny. Hollywood hands Phil his head. He returns to Syracuse, scrapes together a career as a D-list celebrity on public television, and becomes miserable.

Jack Benny, meanwhile, is up in "Jewish heaven," working his own dead rooms in a cursed nightclub act, where everybody shouts out his punch lines, driving him crazy. Benny (real name: Benjamin Kubelsky), who in real life did Christmas specials on TV and radio, gets a chance to regain his Jewish star status if he becomes Phil's guardian angel. He agrees, and shows Phil how a life in Hollywood spent suppressing his Jewishness would have worked out for him.

As you've probably guessed, this Wonderful Life is not about Christmas, either.

Raker says he got the idea for the show when Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser started showing up in his dreams, which sounds like the start of a bad joke until you realize that Raker used to hang out with the comics. You guessed it: Raker wrote the play about himself. He, too, knocked around D-list Hollywood for a bit, performing stand-up, writing pilots, and acting in sitcoms you don't remember. He even landed a dream job penning jokes for Johnny Carson, who could launch a comic's career by waving him to the Tonight Showcouch after his routine. Raker never got the wave, and has spent the last 15 years in San Francisco, writing corporate video scripts and advertising copy while raising a family. It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life is his return to show biz, and from the looks of it, he won't be leaving again anytime soon.

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