St. Joan (Rivers)

Far away from the glare of New York media, Joan Rivers is giving birth.

Yes, the 74-year-old comedienne, who once wrote and directed a flop movie about the world’s first pregnant man, is again in a gestation period.

The baby, as it were, is the self-explanatory Joan Rivers Theatre Project, a new play penned by Rivers (with Doug Bernstein and Denis Markell) that begins its world premiere engagement at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre Tuesday.

There won’t be any critics writing snarky (or glowing) reviews because they’re not invited. The whole idea of starting out in San Francisco is to keep the show on the down-low and give Rivers, the other writers and director Mark Rucker a chance to perfect it.

“I don’t want to get your hopes up too high, but I think it’s very good,” Rivers says on the phone from her New York home. “It’s a workshop, and what we’re going to do after San Francisco I don’t know. We’ll see what the audience thinks. In San Francisco, if they hate me, it doesn’t matter. I’ll never see them again. We go to different Costcos.”

Rivers has been working on the show, off and on, for three years now, and she says she had some help from playwright Charles Busch (Die, Mommy, Die, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), though his name has not yet appeared in any press materials.

Of course, she’s also been doing other things like touring Great Britain, selling jewelry and beauty products on QVC, asking celebrities “who they’re wearing” on red carpets and spending time with her 7-year-old grandson, Cooper.

The idea for the show, which Rivers describes as “a one-woman show with a full cast,” is based on something that actually happened to her in a dressing room just before an awards show when her job was on the line and the network was tightening the purse strings.
“There are laughs, of course, but there’s poignancy. It’s serious,” Rivers says. “I want to make a point.”

Early readings have met with enthusiasm.

“Oh, sure,” she says, “the readings have been beyond successful. We got offers to go right to Broadway. There were two producers who wanted it. My lawyer, whom I adore, said no. He said we should go far out of town, figure it all out quietly. That’s OK with me. My whole career has been: They’ll find you. If the show works at the Magic, I’d like to take it to a small, intimate room and have a wonderful, terrific time. I don’t want to compete with `Hairspray’ or `Legally Blonde.’ ”

Though she’s best known as an outrageous stand-up comedian — “My body is falling so fast my gynecologist wears a hard hat” — Rivers does have theater cred.

She wrote and starred in her first Broadway show, Fun City, in 1972; replaced Linda Lavin in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound in 1986 (her reviews were terrific); and she wrote and starred in 1994’s Sally Marr…and Her Escorts in which she played Lenny Bruce’s comedian mother.

Sally Marr, that’s the child I loved the most,” Rivers says. “That was more than 10 years ago. I was going out with somebody. The red carpet stuff took off at that point. Then other things came along. Different times in your life you do different things.”

Not too long after she was born Joan Sandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, the young Rivers was performing in a way-off-Broadway show called Driftwood, in which the young woman playing her lesbian lover was none other than a 16-year-old Barbra Streisand.

“It was a play you didn’t hear about then, and Barbra and I are the only reason you hear about it now,” River says. “The author is still alive, so I don’t want to say too much, but it was not a stellar moment in the theater. But looking back, it was so much fun. That was the first thing Barbra did. Soon after that she really got going. I talk about that experience in the new play.”

Rivers attends the theater frequently. In fact, a good friend of hers is a theater critic, and he lets her take her pick of the new shows.

“It’s like being in a candy store!” Rivers enthuses. “With a critic friend, you end up seeing a lot of things you wouldn’t normally see.”

The last thing Rivers saw was the London revival of the comedy Boeing, Boeing, which she says she was asked to be in. She also recently saw Legally Blonde.

“I like it live,” Rivers says. “There’s nothing like that connection with the audience. I’d rather watch a live actor any day than a wonderful tape or TV show. Oh, I love the theater.”
But don’t think for a minute Rivers is giving up stand-up or her popular offerings on QVC.
While she’s in San Francisco, Rivers will do her comedy act Aug. 24-25, 27 and 31 and Sept. 1 at the Empire Plush Room.

“I’ve always enjoyed performing in San Francisco,” Rivers says. “Terrific audience. A good audience is always part gay.”

Every Wednesday when she’s at home in New York, Rivers performs at the Cutting Room, which is near New York University. Her audience, not surprisingly, is young.

“I’ve never appealed to older people,” Rivers says. “This is such a generality, but older people are stuck in their ways. If they’ve done well in life, they get rigid about how they should act. Younger people are so open, and that’s what comedy needs.”

To keep her edge, Rivers writes a daily blog ( A recent entry allowed her to express excitement about coming to San Francisco and to resurrect some of her favorite jokes about the city (all of which, she notes, are politically incorrect). Here’s a sample: “In San Francisco you can take a ferry to Alcatraz, but then he’ll expect you to buy him lunch.”

While she’s in the Bay Area, Rivers swears she’ll be focused intently on shaping the new play. Some of her famous friends have said they would love to come visit her here and see the show. But Rivers is adamant: no distractions.

“One friend, who is lovely, a countess from England, wants to come. I told her, no, we’re not shopping, we’re working. I’m going to do this play, have the audience love me. Then I’ll go shopping. Maybe I’ll even go hug a redwood.”

At the start of our phone conversation, I mentioned to Rivers that I had grown up in Reno, and it seemd everywhere I turned in my youth there was a billboard with her face on it.

“Reno! I love Reno!” Rivers kvelled. “I played the Nugget there last year. I wish I could play there more.”

As our conversation about her stint at the Magic Theatre came to an end, Rivers interrupted herself and said: “OK, tell me more about Reno,” then went on to enthuse about the area. She mentioned she would love to have a home on Donner Lake. Tahoe, she said, was too crowded.

“The Joan Rivers Theatre Project” opens Tuesday, Aug.21 and continues through Sept. 2 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $40. Call 415- 441-8822 or visit
For information about Rivers’ Empire Plush Room gig, call 866-468-3399 or visit

NOTE: Rivers is performing a benefit preview of The Joan Rivers Project Friday, Aug. 17 to benefit Positive Resource Center and Magnet, two nonprofit organizations that deal with issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

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