Review: Cast is superb, but 1962 Gardner play feels dated

Tuesday, July 24, 2012
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— Sometimes revisiting a classic American comedy can provide the comfort of flipping through an old family album, kindling warm feelings and the memories of a simpler time. But sometimes the light falls oddly, wiping out the warmth and focusing only on the out-of-date fashions, boatlike old cars and the “what is that on your head?” hair, making us wonder what we ever found fascinating about all this in the first place.

These and other feelings surfaced during the current Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of “A Thousand Clowns.” As interesting as is the trip back, you sort of wonder why we needed to grab this album off the shelf.

‘A Thousand Clowns’

WHERE: Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, Mass.

WHEN: Through July 28

HOW MUCH: $57-$37

MORE INFO: 413-997-4444 or www.berkshiretheatregroup.org

Herb Gardner’s 1962 comedy about affable, 40-ish iconoclast Murray Burns (CJ Wilson), whose wayward guardianship of his 12-year-old nephew Nick (Russell Posner) gets called into question when agents from the Child Welfare Bureau make a visit, has long been a staple of stock and community theater. The reason? It’s funny, and makes no waves.

Murray Burns has hit a wall. Six months ago, he chucked his job as a writer for the children’s TV program “Chuckles the Chipmunk” and has been spending his days going to the movies, visiting city landmarks and yelling out his window to rally his neighbors into “owning their days.” Murray’s caprice proves a magnet to social worker Sandra Markowitz (Rachel Bay Jones), but it also proves repellent to the officious bureau investigator, Albert Amundson (James Barry), determined to shield Nick from such whimsical influences.

As Murray reluctantly realizes that Nick may well get packed off to foster care unless he finds a new suit and rejoins the rat race, he endures advice from his long-suffering agent/brother Arnold (Andrew Polk) and reminders of why he ran from his insufferable employer Leo (Jordan Gelber). The plot may seem familiar and oh so predictable, but Gardner’s knack for penning a snappy quip and peppering the script with quotable dialogue has ensured the play’s legacy.

Posner’s precocious, deadpan Nick is an absolute joy. Smart, hilarious and gifted at landing the laugh, the kid doesn’t have the potential of being a gifted actor — he already is. Jones’ quirky and lovable Sandra is a delight; Polk delivers not only fruit baskets but all the right laughs as overburdened agent/brother Arnold; and Barry and Gelber are note-perfect with roles that could very easily have been bent into parody.

So why does this production land fairly cold and leave one thinking this script is best left on the bookshelf?

The key may lie in the approach of the main character’s struggle. Director Kyle Fabel has muted Murray’s eccentricity and spontaneity, which weakens the character’s position as a beacon of hope (and attraction) for the floundering Sandra and the untethered Nick.

Wilson does imbue Murray with charm, but it is heavily masked. The morose and depressive approach to the character may be honest but it overwhelms, bringing a sense of futility to his situation that seems insurmountable — something that questions the plausibility of the play’s ending.

In addition, times have changed. When first produced 50 years ago, Gardner’s tragic-comic exposé of an aging Holden Caulfield bucking convention and expectation was daring, different and welcome. Today, the play’s monologues praising the virtues of nonconformity and unorthodoxy ring with a hollow petulance and selfishness that become tiresome. Perhaps modern-day cynicism has silenced the watch cry. The emotional struggles and ailments that Gardner examined and successfully healed with humor then are now, sadly, treated with Prozac.

 

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