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Forever young, but not aging well

Theatrical revival of Pee-wee ignores passage of time

Paul Reubens revisits his childlike 1980s character, Pee-wee Herman, in a Broadway show recorded for HBO. Paul Reubens revisits his childlike 1980s character, Pee-wee Herman, in a Broadway show recorded for HBO. (Kevin Mazur)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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Pee-wee Herman is a gnarly creation, a subversion and celebration of boyhood all at once. He bounces all over the bedazzled stage of his Broadway production “The Pee-wee Herman Show,’’ a sexless sprite in a too-small suit and a bow tie. He’s part clown, part little angel, and part snippy brat. He knows you are, but what is he?

“The Pee-wee Herman Show’’ was recorded for HBO and will air Saturday night at 10. And while I have fond and funny memories of Pee-wee from the 1980s, I must say that seeing Paul Reubens don the outfit and the persona in 2011 is quite a different experience. Approaching 60, Reubens can still re-create Pee-wee’s stick-figure body language, but his face is a puffier version of its earlier self and his eyes are smaller. His reactivity is a little less elastic. Alas, it happens. But the aging of Pee-wee adds an unaccounted-for note of pathos to the performance, a weight that doesn’t jibe with Pee-wee’s origins as a spoof on goody-goody children’s TV. It’s like seeing Pinocchio trimming nose hairs.

If the theatrical revival of Pee-wee had somehow incorporated the passage of time into the script, it might have mustered some poignancy or tragic camp. Perhaps a meta framing device was in order, to put all the dated “Pee-wee’s Playhouse’’ material in context — the way “The Brady Bunch Movie’’ had the Bradys living in the 1970s during the 1990s. Maybe Pee-wee and the gang should have taken some kind of journey out of the playhouse.

But instead, “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway’’ is 90 minutes of familiar, fragmented, claustrophobic mayhem moving ahead at an ADD pace. There is no plot to speak of — just a long string of gags and visits from all of Pee-wee’s friends, including Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), and, of course, Chairy. Some of the material is given a contemporary spin, with references to Pee-wee’s desire for a computer. But for the most part, “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway’’ is stale sugary shtick on a candy-colored set with no new resonance — no undercurrents about childhood, or innocence, or even Pee-wee Herman. It’s just the springing of a jack-in-the-box over and over.

To ignore the fact that Reubens is older, that children’s entertainment has changed, and that childhood itself looks different these days, reduces “The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway’’ to grating nostalgia. By the end, I knew I’d rather try to sleep while the downstairs neighbor’s kid has drum practice, or darn my socks outside on a zero-degree day without gloves, or sweep the sidewalk in a windstorm, than ever have to sit through this show again.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW ON BROADWAY

Starring: Paul Reubens, Drew Powell, John Paragon, Jesse Garcia, Lynne Marie Stewart, Phil LaMarr, John Moody

On: HBO

Time: Saturday night, 10-11:30