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`KUNG FOOEY’ IS GREAT FUN - WHEN SCRIPT STAYS ON TRACK

SHARE `KUNG FOOEY’ IS GREAT FUN - WHEN SCRIPT STAYS ON TRACK

Used to be that Eric Jensen, Bob Bedore and Russell Peacock were three of the funniest comedy actors around. But that's changed.

Now, with Robert Bogue in most of their Off Broadway outings, I can safely (well relatively safely) say that Eric, Russ and Bob and the other Bob are FOUR of the funniest guys in town.And I'll climb out a bit farther on my limb and say that nobody can grimmace like Bogue. Or do really loud (thud!) pratfalls.

If it weren't for Eric's carefully disciplined performance as Kung Fu practitioner John Cain Chain Smith - a near-perfect take on David Carradine's Kwai Chang Caine character in ABC's popular "Kung Fu" series in the mid-'70s - Bogue could be jailed for scene-stealing.

"Kung Fooey" starts off as a first-rate spoof. But well-executed parody works best when it treds a very fine line. Unfortunately, about four-fifths of the way through this, things get ridiculously silly and out of control.

There are some very funny situations throughout much of the play and, for the most part, cowriters Bedore and Jensen keep the original "Kung Fu" theme in mind.

Smith's frequent flashbacks and ongoing attempts to gain further enlightenment at the feet of his teacher, Master Hu (Hu-lariously played by Peacock) are terrific.

The rest of the cast does just fine, too - Sandy Jensen as Sara Lee, a young Asian woman who quickly catches Smith's eye when he wanders into Catty's Saloon; Bedore as triple-crossing villain Marvin Mudley; Kaycee Raquel as Miss Nadia Demeanor, Mudley's seductive accomplice, and Bogue as Dogg, their not-quite-playing-with-a-full-deck cohort in crime.

Two players have dual roles: Peacock as both Master Hu and Sara's father, laundryman/gold miner Wong Lee, and Alexis Owen as both saloon owner Catty and (shades of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) a Power Priest.

When "Kung Fooey" sticks to spoofing the classic TV series (Smith's quiet pondering, the subtle way he takes care of the treachery in the small Western town) it's great fun. And when Bogue is the foil for some of the one-liners, it's also well done. (When Catty doesn't get a response from Dogg at one point, Mudley advises her to talk to him like a lower life form, so she says: "Hello, Senator!")

Unfortunately, in a play spoofing a mystical philosophy built on restraint and control, it's particularly jarring when, toward the end, "Kung Fooey" suddenly shifts gears and tackles the more contemporary "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."

It's an example of what can go wrong when a show's writers, directors and producers are one and the same. There's no one willing to say "Whoa! Maybe we should pull back."

The show's musical numbers are another case in point.

"Secret Asian Man" (a spin on the "Secret Agent Man" theme) is clever and fits right in, and Miss Demeanor's vampish version of "Hard Hearted Hannah" was a knockout. But the "Rice" rap and a couple of the other songs are either unforgettable or unnecessarily long, or both.

If they'd give the Power Rangers a permanent karate chop and trim about 15 minutes off the script and some of the music, this would be a much smoother production.

On the plus side, when a sound or light cue misfires, the actors are quick to respond with an ad lib. That's not surprising, since most of the performers also participate in OBT's brilliant "Quick Wits" improv troupe.

I just wish the Off Broadway bunch would get away from their old, entrenched musical-melodrama roots and get on with focusing on really hot, biting satire. I know they can do it. The talent is there.

I've been waiting anxiously for two years for their long talked-about "Hotel Utah" spoof. Instead, they just keep cranking out TV series retreads.