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Pee-wee Herman charms the cognoscenti

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones may be pulling serious theatergoers in to Driving Miss Daisy, but the glory of Broadway is that just a couple of blocks away, you can catch Pee-wee Herman chatting with some flowers, arguing with a chair, and instructing the audience to scream every time they hear the word “fun.”

For a heady top ticket price of $227, The Pee-wee Herman Show basically recreates Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Paul Reubens’ legendary 1980s program for very advanced children, starring a bratty but lovable arrested child in a bowtie and a smirk.

As you absorb his irrepressible antics carried out on a psychedelically vivid set at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, you feel like you’ve been sucked into a lava lamp or maybe a Rhino Records collection–and if you don’t know what those things are, you’re probably too young for this show. You see, while Pee-wee used to appeal to kids of all ages, now he’s mainly for aging Boomers aiming to relive their subversive youths–ex-kids who were always in on the joke but are finally ready for a harder nudge and a naughtier wink.

And they get it. In between the songs, cartoons, and etiquette tips, Pee-wee’s added some grownup material that he wouldn’t have been caught dead doing in the old days. Packed into the breezy 90 minutes, there‘s a fireman with a big hose, a shtick about gay marriage, and a bit where Pee-wee puts a giant seashell to his butt. (Somehow the nut confused “your ear” with “your rear.”)

Most fascinating of all is when Pee-wee announces, “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about love and all that creepy junk. Because I have this,” he adds, waving his hand in the air. The audience shrieks with laughter, rightly assuming it’s a reference to Reubens’ 1991 arrest for pleasuring himself in an adult theater. The character then says he’s referring to the abstinence ring on his hand, and the joke gets even better. (Who’d have thought Pee-wee Herman would ever have any behavior in common with the Jonas Brothers?)

It’s all clever, candy colored amusement, and though the nonstop whimsy becomes a bit wearying, you have to love the glee with which 58-year-old Reubens resuscitates his childish alter ego, even adding a message about the importance of giving. His show may not be Pulitzer material, but for those who were alive in the ‘80s and can even remember them, this is, you know, fun. (Everybody scream.)