It can scarcely be argued that humor is at its most effective when it is rooted in truth, yet where must the line be drawn between a joke that illuminates a societal foible, and one that elicits a laugh at the expense of a certain person or ethnic group? This difficult issue is at the heart of Trevor Griffith's Comedians, and while the message in the production at the Samuel Beckett Theatre remains sound, how does the show as a vehicle for this insight fare in 2003, nearly three decades after it was first written?
As directed by Scott Elliott, the answer is: Better than you think. Even when the play is at its most familiar - and some of the jokes and subjects on which the jokes are based were creaky even when the play was first written - its underlying message is still a powerful one. Does art in today's climate exist solely to entertain or offer an escape, or do movies, television, music, and, yes, even standup comedy, aspire to move, inspire, and change the world? The decadently commercial nature of film, video, and even the stage, seems to answer that question almost before it's asked.
Griffiths, through the character of Eddie Waters (as interpreted by Jim Dale), argues that any type of art - comedy, in this case - without that vital component of a higher intent contributes little to the greater good of society. But the students Eddie teaches in the standup comedy class that forms the structure for the play, learn that they must make their own decisions and choices based on Eddie's higher ideals, and what they will be able to sell to Bert Challenor (David McCallum), who comes to Eddie's class seeking fresh new talent.
Perhaps no one in the class is fresher than Gethin Price (Raśl Esparza), a shock comic of abundant creativity and exquisite promise who recalls - perhaps a bit to effectively - for Eddie what once made him successful. The relationship between the two - father and son one moment, old school versus new school the next - is what really gives Comedians its heft and helps drive its message home. Gethin and Eddie have a great deal to learn from each other, and in the course of exploring their relationship, illuminate for the audience the boundaries of good taste, comedy itself, and even revolution.
The second act comedy show, which features all six of the would-be comics strutting their stuff, is entertaining, not so much for the material, which tends toward the commonplace (at least by today's standards), but for the audience's reactions to it. In general, though, when the play doesn't focus on the battle of the wills between Eddie and Gethin, it gets less interesting. The script is, at times, overly talky (the final scene's point could be made more succinctly), and the other men rounding out the comedy class aren't particularly interesting to watch offstage or on (they are granted individuality only during the comedy show). William Duell, however, as the school's caretaker, delights in turning each of his few lines into a comic masterpiece. Derek McLane's sets, Mimi O'Donnell's costumes, and Jason Lyons's lights are fine - nothing exceptional, but solid.
But Dale and Esparza together create the kind of theatrical chemical reaction one hopes for in the theatre. Esparza, usually brilliant at his worst, maintains his high standards of excellence here, finding likable and even sympathetic qualities in Gethin, even as his exterior attitudes and prejudices render him immediately odious. Dale is more subdued in his performance, smoldering until his final explosive (if a bit overwrought) speech. He finds a great amount of easygoing truth in his role, even though most of his lines are declamatory statements about the comedian's art.
So, if Comedians isn't a great play and its messages are less insightful now than when it was first conceived, it remains an original, thought-provoking, work that even manages to be entertaining when it doesn't try too hard. But, still, this production is a must-see for Dale and Esparza, who demonstrate how even familiar messages and overused platitudes can seem revelatory in great artists' hands.
Photo of Raul Esparza and Jim Dale by Carol Rosegg.