For those of a certain age, Herb Gardner’s comedy, “A Thousand Clowns,” which just opened at the Intiman Theatre, will seem like a period piece, an exotic view into the early 1960’s before they became the 1960s as they are usually regarded. For others, much older, the play will bring back memories of an era well-remembered when life seemed safer, quieter, for some anyway, predictable and conventional.
That is the apple cart the leading character Murray Burns, a burned-out gag writer for a television children’s show, wants to overturn. After a lot of ranting and raving — the entire length of the play — he returns to the show and resumes a middle-class existence. Gardner doesn’t view Burns’ capitulation to the ordinary as a defeat but as a return to a human being who cares about the people around him instead of being a narcissist.
The playwright made his New York debut, in 1963, with “A Thousand Clowns” and went on to write “I’m Not Rappaport” and “Conversations With My Father,” both of which were given out-of-town tryouts at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, staged by Daniel Sullivan, then artistic director of the company.
Gardner has a light hand for domestic comedy. That light hand is not so obvious with Sari Ketter’s staging. She has upped the ante in “A Thousand Clowns.” Nearly every character is on some kind of steroid with a notable exception of Nick Burns (wonderfully played by Nick Robinson), Murray Burns’ very smart and very endearing 12-year old nephew for whom he gives up his old ways. All the personalities are drawn in heavy crayon, sometimes to the point of caricature. Just as they can be funny, they can be irritating.
Murray is not just a happy non-conformist. He is angry, tossing and turning in his self-made stew, both confident and insecure. It is hard to see, from the perspective of 2009, just what the fuss was about in 1963. The world has changed that much that , There are so many things we take for granted that were not taken for granted in the early 1960’s. Gardner makes a big point about the Jewishness of his characters, but nearly a half-century ago, that kind of emphasis made a political point.
What changes the balance in this production is the fury Burns feels and readily demonstrates. That attitude is an attempt to make the play more relevant today — not just so much fluff. Certainly, Boston does it very well, really to the point he is more tiresome, irresponsible and in-your-face than sympathetic. I don’t think Ketter is making a new play out of old material. The mud and rocks that she slings are in the text, but under the surface.
Ketter assembled an admirable cast. Boston is very good storming about the stage and being superior to everyone except his nephew. I found his anger more persuasive than his sense of comedy. Robinson is so exemplary he takes over the stage with his charm and intelligence and good lines. Julie Jesneck’s Sandra Markowitz, a social worker sent to investigate Burns’ household and falls in love with him, is appealing. The character is a type found in many plays, but Jesneck’s makes her seem real. The Albert Amundson of Bradford Farwell, the other social worker, and Arnold Burns of David Pichette (Murray’s brother) were well-cast. Tim Hyland is maniacal as Leo Herman, whose idiotic children’s show Murray left only to return to at the end. He is quite fantastic.
Nayna Ramey’s set works and sets the right tone, while Marcia Dixcy Jory’s costumes are on the mark.
The production runs through June 17.
Earlier this month Intiman announced that Barlett Sher, its artistic director who has won fame and glory in New York — in theater and opera — will remain as the company’s artistic director until 2010. His current contract expires later this year. With two huge hits in New York, critically and publicly, in “South Pacific” and “Joe’s Turner’s Come and Gone,” Sher will concentrate in helping secure his successor. No one expected him to stay beyond this season, so another year is pretty good news.