Sit-com runs deep
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre reveals the surprising depth of Herb Gardner's vintage, wisecracking comedy.
Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns opened the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre‘s season Friday night in the manner of a vintage sitcom: Broad comedy, lines delivered for effect rather than spoken naturally, stereotypical characters. Social workers as goofy as the two in this play have never trod planet Earth. Ten minutes in, the 1962 comedy felt like a weak episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show.
A Thousand Clowns and this production of it became much more than that. As it unfolded, I wondered if Gardner’s characters ran away with him as he wrote. They start out as wisecracking puppets, but end up as people with real passion and pain.
Our changing feelings and thwarted expectations about Murray Burns, the central character, drive the play and keep it engrossing across well over two hours. The plot, in case you’ve forgotten: Eccentric, unemployed writer Uncle Murray raises nephew, now 12. Social welfare evaluators think he’s unfit. Murray must take a job he hates to show responsibility and keep the boy. Oh, and the female welfare agent falls in love with Murray.
We think we know him: Mr. Gruff and Eccentric, but finally lovable, a voice of independence in a square, conforming world. But his intransigence disappoints us as it does the dramatis personae around him. Just as we expect him to get fuzzy and warm, he doesn’t. His wackiness becomes less lovable, his independence looks more and more like selfishness. Characters who serve as mere foils early pierce him with pointed arguments late, as we see how Murray’s eccentric charm wears thin for those who must pick up after him. The play and this production retain their sense of humor throughout, but the comedy has more weight late.
The entire cast, with Tom Klubertanz as Murray leading the way, adapts its acting style to match the evolving tone of the script, from noisy and broad to nearly naturalistic. And in a brilliant echo, or recollection, of what the play had been, Stephan Roselin barges into Act 3 as a loudmouth comedian desperate to hang onto his gig as a chipmunk in a kids’ show. His discordant, desperate antics are strangely poignant in the place where the play has arrived.
Before that, Murray’s two arguments with his brother, an agent trying to get Murray his old job back with the chipmunk show, turn the tide of the play. Patrick Lawlor’s effortless dignity in the face of Murray’s abuse does more than anything to question our sympathy with Murray, and that questioning makes the play interesting.
The ensemble — also young Thomas Kindler as Nick Burns, Beth Mulkerron as Sandra Markowitz and Matt Daniels as strait-laced social worker Albert Amundson — affect the change in style and tone so gradually that you don’t realize it’s happening. You just feel yourself drawn in more and more and caring more and more about people who were mere quip mechanisms in Act 1. Gardner warmed up to all of them as he wrote them, and we warm up to them, too, as we realize that all the “squares” circling Murray and Nick are just trying to do the right thing.
Could they have accomplished such a subtle group acting task without a director of extraordinary insight? No. That director would be Jonathan West, who clearly understands both the big arc of the play and the timing of one-liners and visual comedy. Some screamingly funny moments, many with no words at all, punctuate the existential crises and arguments in Act 3.
The set, like the acting and the play itself, turns out to be more interesting and expressive than it at first appears.
A Thousand Clowns runs through Aug. 26 at in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center. Visit the MCT’s website for tickets and further information.
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