Bea Arthur, the Bawd of Broadway, Talks Dirty Just Between Friends

When you were a child, did you have a sweet old granny who told you dirty jokes? I did. Sometimes she sang naughty songs, too, and sometimes I wished she hadn’t. But she did just the same.

My granny didn’t give a damn. “Have you heard the one about the rabbi and the nun?” she would ask, handing me my rubber ducky in the bubble bath. As I approached the age of 9, there were times when I wanted my granny to be like the other grannies. I wanted her to give me money. But she just told her stories and sang her songs. Here’s one of them:

Cock a doodle do

What’s to do with you?

Leave it alone

Play with your own

And cock a doodle do!

Is it any wonder I was a miserable child? But this is the unfortunate thing. I think my granny was Bea Arthur.

There are definite similarities. Take the first ditty Ms. Arthur sings in her one-woman show at the Booth Theater, Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends . It’s called “What Can You Get a Nudist for Her Birthday?”

What can you get a nudist for her birthday?

What sort of present can you buy?

Tell me on the level, can I send her a muff?

(Pause for a laugh)

It may be true they wear a smile,

But that can’t be enough.

It brought the house down in its jaunty way. So did Ms. Arthur’s breezy rendition of another naughty song entitled “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It” (which I enjoyed very much). But though my response to her show is very mixed, more or less anything the 78-year-old star did was greeted with wild enthusiasm by her many fans in the audience–including her retelling of the old joke about the taxi driver, the nun and the blowjob.

But don’t let me spoil things quite so soon. Ms. Arthur’s opening dialogue with us is wonderfully, dryly funny. “I’d like to talk to you about lamb,” she begins. “Specifically, leg of.” She then proceeds to give us her leg-of-lamb recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in leisurely detail. “And then when you’re ready to cook it, you simply put it into a 350-degree oven for half an hour …. I like it slightly pink. Of course, if you like it better done, you know, an extra half-hour should do it.”

Ms. Arthur’s unusual opening is a touch of comic genius, promising great, original things. Its domesticated coziness is the deliberate opposite of her brassy-broad image from a thousand episodes of Maude and The Golden Girls . (They add up to 20 TV years of her life.) But leg-of-lamb recipe or no, brassy broads don’t change their bawdy.

She says that she’s done everything but rodeo and porn. In fact, her stage career began in the late 40′s. She can still belt out a song, as her medley from Gypsy proves. Battling Mama Rose might have been made for her–”For me / For me / For ME!”–but she never played the role. She was, among much, an admired Yente in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof , and Angela’s Lansbury’s boozy best friend in Mame , for which she won a Tony Award. She tells a story about the ladylike Ms. Lansbury during the show: “I came to realize she has a mouth like a longshoreman.” She tells a better one about Jerome Robbins.

“Talk about a gift from God!” she announces about Robbins’ talent. “But he really wasn’t a very nice person …. Actually, he was the only director who ever made me cry. He was a really dreadful human being. Everybody hated him.”

She then tells an amusing story about a dancer called Swen who raised Yorkshire terriers to do dog tricks. Whenever Swen had a party, he always left the door open. “And at some point in the evening,” she tells us, “he’d go to the doorway and look out and say, ‘Oh my God, here comes Jerry Robbins!’ And the little dog would fling himself against the door and slam it shut.”

So the lady is funny, no question. Her timing, for one miraculous thing, is uncanny, her vitality undiminished. But her showbiz stroll down memory lane is uneven. The Pia Zadora story, for one, is awfully well-known (though too good to resist). But tales of Tony Curtis, Mae West and others do seem passé. Her heartfelt tribute to Lotte Lenya from Threepenny Opera proves a solemn stretch (with dramatic light changes)–something, as it were, for serious theatergoers . She touches us more with a sentimental Tom Jones-Billy Goldenberg ballad from Harold and Maude . Then again, her segment on the TV years proves surprisingly thin, the script uninspired: “It was so creatively rewarding. I mean, working with enormously talented people–writers, directors, actors and producers–doing material that was bright, witty, provocative, literate, sophisticated, adult and daring …. “

Oh, I don’t know. Ms. Arthur is surely proud of her TV work, but applauding it from the stage might be a contradiction in terms. It’s O.K., I guess, when she announces how marvelous it is that Vermont is the very first state to grant legal recognition to same-sex couples. (Solid applause from the audience.) But is Tallulah Bankhead really civil rights’ best advocate? Ms. Arthur relates how the immortal Tallulah told her, “It’s not the cock and it’s not the twat. It’s the eyes, don’t you know, and sometimes the smell of lilac.”

Poetry is a wonderful thing. But when Ms. Arthur adds, “And now I’ve offended at least a few of you,” the truth is closer to the mark that she hasn’t offended any of us. There was no slamming of seats or outraged cries of “Twat! Right, that’s it! Honey, we’re leaving .” The star, it’s clear, is no prude. But she promises danger while offering a knowing “naughtiness.” Kenneth Tynan once remarked how peculiar it is that actresses with deep voices are almost always perceived as daringly witty and bright. Ms. Arthur can seem pretty daring, and she’s certainly smart. But are her stories about douche bags and B.O. witty?

No director of Bea Arthur on Broadway is credited. Mark Waldrop and Richard Maltby Jr. are billed as “production consultants.” The set consists of the usual fake flowers in a vase, armchair and piano. Ms. Arthur’s co-creator, pianist and occasional stooge is the veteran composer Billy Goldenberg, who’s a lovely, gifted man with the look of a stoic.

The star’s parting words before the standing ovation are a message. “I’d like to thank you all for coming,” she says sweetly. “And I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Still Here.’”

It will not go unnoticed that Elaine Stritch will be singing “I’m Still Here” in her own one-woman show on Broadway any day now.

If it’s war, may the best broad win. I know who’s going to win, actually. But as my old granny used to say when I was a child: “Shut your mouth.”