Send In the Clown

Back in 1962, I was unfair to A Thousand Clowns. A typical boulevard comedy with tearful overtones, Herb Gardner’s first, and still best, play is sentimental, cutesy, and variously unreal. But it is also droll, charming in its brash way, and, at times, genuinely touching. You need not believe it in order to enjoy it.

Murray Burns, a television writer playing hooky from making a living, lives (one doesn’t know off what) in a one-room Manhattan apartment with precious, precocious 10-year-old Nick, the son of his sluttish sister, who left the child with her less-than-responsible brother. But Murray and Nick get along famously, even if Nick keeps lecturing Murray about getting a job and must move in with a neighbor whenever his uncle entertains a lady friend overnight.

The Child Welfare Board has its eye on this seemingly unqualified guardian. Two of its representatives, the starchy functionary Albert Amundson and the insecure neophyte child psychologist Sandra Markowitz – who turns out to be Albert’s unfulfilled fiancée – descend on the Burns household. Albert finds Murray unfit; Sandra sees fit to spend the day and night with him, forfeiting both fiancé and job.

Murray has an agent brother, Arnold, a former free spirit turned solid husband and father, ensconced in a streamlined office high above the city. The Child Welfare Board gives Murray two days to prove his competence, and Arnold tries to get him a job writing for Leo Herman, a.k.a. Chuckles the Chipmunk, host of a children’s TV show who hates both the show and its viewers. Out of the comic interaction of this sextet, some very odd music emerges.

Murray is an eccentric who has smart-ass altercations with the recorded telephone weather lady and who, sitting on his windowsill, shouts orders at his unheeding neighbors to upgrade their second-rate garbage. His tiny apartment (cunning set by Allen Moyer) bulges with the unlikeliest bric-a-brac that might just appeal to a magpie, and he spouts hedonistic epigrams that wed Huck Finn to Oscar Wilde. When Jason Robards created the part, he was a little too awash in charm; when Judd Hirsch revived the role, he was too lacking in it. Tom Selleck, forsaking film and TV for his stage debut, gets Murray just right. He is neither too macho nor too fey, neither blatant wise guy nor cliché ethnic (i.e., New York Jewish), and actually infuses Murray’s cultivated whimsicality with welcome earthiness.

In the part created by Sandy Dennis, Barbara Garrick is less relentlessly kooky and is also, against considerable odds, believable. As the stiff Albert, Bradford Cover does not lose the underlying decency and pathos; Robert Lupone’s Arnold is both slickly pragmatic and bittersweetly human. Mark Blum gets Chuckles’s blend of smarminess, arrogance, and self-loathing down to a T. But there is one small – or is it big? – snag: Little Nicolas King is an adorable Nick but swallows or mashes together too many words, losing too many lines. Couldn’t the splendidly versatile director, John Rando, teach him how to speak?

Shaw’s Major Barbara is a discomfiting play. Its essential points are that poverty is not moving but repellent; that charity is a fake virtue based on self-righteousness and even smugness; and that the Machiavellian millionaire munitions-and-armament manufacturer Andrew Undershaft secretly runs the government, dictates war or peace, and serves humanity better than do-gooders and saints by decimating it .

It is a play replete with paradox, overrich in exposition, condescending to the lower classes while mocking the upper ones. Its Salvation Army heroine, Undershaft’s daughter Major Barbara, quits in disgust when she concludes that the Army is bought by the dirty money of her father and his like, but embraces her fiancé when he gives up idealistically teaching Greek literature to inherit the supposedly evil Undershaft empire. Everything is contrary and contradictory, but Shaw keeps providing explanations that juggle the perverse with the plausible.

The dialogue, once it crawls out from under the exposition, is Shavianly coruscating and challenging but leaves a nasty aftertaste. A bearded enfant terrible is lurking behind the authorial persona of a philosophical provocateur, neither of them sufficiently unslippery. Yet there is undeniable fun in the sparks of unorthodox ideas tartly clashing with convention, which has its own laughter-begetting ridiculousness.

As the double-bottomed heroine, the admirable Cherry Jones is not quite as easeful as she has been in warmer roles but still winning enough. David Warner, though less massive than Undershafts past (e.g., Robert Morley and Charles Laughton), grows into his role as the play progresses and eventually fills it out. As his peppery matriarchal wife, Dana Ivey is up to her somewhat frayed tricks and would have done better to make Lady Britomart not quite so sexless. Denis O’Hare, as the classicist hero, gives an idiosyncratically offbeat performance that effectively sneaks up on you; in the supporting cast, I especially liked Zak Orth (Stephen), Rick Holmes (as the perfect twit, Charles), and Richard Russell Ramos (Peter Shirley).

Impressive, too, are John Lee Beatty’s sets and the lighting of the trusty Brian MacDevitt (who also lighted A Thousand Clowns). This may not quite be a major Major Barbara, but neither is it a minor one.

In brief: I sometimes feel that there may be nowhere for the theater to go but up, that the bottom has been definitively reached and plowed over. Not so: The musical Once Around the City, with music by Robert Reale and book and lyrics by his brother, Willie, finds unplumbed depths of awfulness in every department, including sets, costumes, staging, and choreography. Some actors even make their ghastly parts ghastlier. The heroine warbles about her dead father, “And his ticket to here after sic / Was a rope around a rafter”; the solidly wooden leading man intones, “With my Armani on me / I become a one-man army.” Enough said.

A Thousand ClownsBy Herb Gardner; directed by John Rando; starring Tom Selleck.
Major Barbara
The comedy by Shaw; directed by Daniel Sullivan; starring Cherry Jones.

Send In the Clown