Regional Reviews: New Jersey
A Thousand Clowns: Always Welcome Perennial Favorite
As I noted in reviewing an earlier production, Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns is so specifically tied to its milieu that if anyone tried to update it or uproot it from its New York City setting and ethnic underpinnings, it would no longer be the play that Gardner wrote. Set forever in 1962, the year of its Broadway opening, more than 40 years later, Clowns is clearly a period piece reflecting a very specific era and generation. What prevents it from being hopelessly dated is the universality of the human emotions and relationships it explores with a quirky sense of humor which always derives from character. It is so warmly cosseting that one can readily forget that its ideals arise from the drop-out, counter-culture environment of the 1960s.
Murray Burns has dropped out after quitting a lucrative job as the head writer for the insufferable Leo Herman aka TV's Chuckles the Chipmunk. Murray is lovingly devoted to his precocious 12-year-old ward and nephew Nick. About to enter and threaten their happy, but chaotic and iconoclastic, world are uptight Department of Child Welfare social worker Albert Amundson and his colleague and fiancée, inexperienced Psychiatric Social Worker Sandra Markowitz.
Will Child Welfare remove Nick from his happy home? Will Murray be willing and able to take a job in order to not lose Nick? Will Murray and the ditzy but sympathetic Sandra Markowitz get together? Well, even though the answers to these questions are never really in doubt, it is always a pleasure to see them answered again, for author Herb Gardner has provided them within the context of a literate, funny and charming feel good play.
And this remains true despite some problematic elements in director Davis McCallum's uneven Two River Theatre production. The pacing is too slow. The three-act play is awkwardly divided into two acts which stretch over two hours and forty-five minutes. Michael Nathanson's Murray comes across as a total slacker, making us grow impatient with his reluctance to get a job. Although Nathanson delivers a solid performance, he appears too youthful to engender the sympathy-inducing, hard-earned world weariness of a writer who has labored too long in a demeaning situation. Jason Robards and Judd Hirsch each brought a presence and style that galvanized Murray and his play. The youthful slacker image is unfortunately made more prominent by the decision of McCallum and costume designer Jessica Ford to have Murray dress in shorts. While he is miscast as Murray, Nathanson impressively conveys a weighty yet limber, naturalistic stage presence which gives him the potential for a breakthrough acting career. I intend to be there when Nathanson plays Prince Hal in a multi-media production of Henry IVParts 1 and 2on Theatre Row this summer.
Truly remarkable is the so good that it is scary performance of just turning 14-year-old Matthew Gumley as Nick. Where did this young man come from? Well, the answer is from creating major roles in Broadway's Elf, The Addams Family and Mary Poppins. Unhappily, I often find myself being the scourge of child actors, but Gumley reads complicated dialogue and carries himself on stage with the skill of a polished adult. There is an easy likeability to his stage presence, without a trace of precociousness beyond that demanded by his role. You will delight in the moment when Nathanson and Gumley combine their voices and ukuleles to sing "Yes Sir, That's My Baby."
Crystal Finn is an engaging and amusing Sandra Markowitz. Her first act meltdown is a crowd pleasing comedy sketch (a la Sandy Dennis almost fifty years ago). Brad Heberlee as Albert Amundson, and Lou Liberatore as Murray's agent-brother Arnold adequately fill the bill, but Nick Sullivan fails to find the laughs in the potentially hilarious role of Leo Herman.
Jason Simms has designed the large, appropriately disheveled set. However, it is not always conducive to adequate sight lines. Davis McCallum, who directed the sensational Signature Theatre production of Charles Mee's Queens Boulevard, has made some missteps here, but when he gets the giddy, delightful conclusion merrily spinning, his A Thousand Clowns goes into orbit and all is right with the world.
Oh, about Irving R. Feldman's birthday ... Well, you see, Irving is the owner of a neighborhood delicatessen who makes pastrami sandwiches so sublime that Murray and Nick take off to celebrate his birthday. It seems that any day they feel a need for a day off together may be Irving R. Feldman's birthday. Act one, scene one takes place on Feldman's birthday, and whenever we see A Thousand Clowns, we have the pleasure of celebrating it with them. The problem is that, this time out, the day after Irving's birthday goes on for too long.
A Thousand Clowns continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday 1 pm; Saturday and Sunday 3 pm) through February 20, 2011, at the Two River Theatre Company (Rechnitz Theatre), 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.