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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

It’s Time to Celebrate Irving R. Feldman’s Birthday Again


Also see Bob's review of The Good Girl is Gone

A Thousand Clowns
Alex Zelenty and Michael Irvin Pollard
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.

Happily back with us are Murray Burns, who has dropped out by quitting a lucrative job as the head writer for the insufferable Leo Herman aka TV’s Chuckles the Chipmunk, and his beloved precocious 12-year-old ward and nephew Nick. About to enter and threaten their happy but chaotic and iconoclastic world are tight-ass Department of Child Welfare social worker Albert Amundson and his colleague and fiancé 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 many will know the answers to these questions going in, it remains a pleasure to see them answered again.

All of the above remains operative despite some not inconsiderable problems with the current Morristown production. The limber and likeable Duncan M. Rogers seems miscast as the acerbic but loving and loveable Murray. Rogers is so off-handed and naturalistic in his performance that he fails to nail many of the laughs. He is so quiet and low key when hanging out his window to satirically excoriate his neighbors that it seems he is making a joke meant only for Nick that he does not mean for the neighbors to hear. There is a heretofore drop-dead, surefire laugh (echoing the uptight social worker Albert’s reaction upon learning that Nick’s mother was unmarried when she birthed him, Murray mockingly says to Albert , “You dirty O.W., you”) which when delivered by Duncan lands like a sledgehammer. Ideally, there should also be an ethnic, New Yorker sense about Murray. Jason Robards did not convey one in the original production, but his timing and delivery were such joys that it did not matter (Judd Hirsch also was a terrific Murray at the Roundabout a decade ago.)

Lea Eckert, so good as the liberated Jill Tanner in last season’s Butterflies Are Free, here comes across as actorish as the frazzled Sandra, a signature Sandy Dennis role. Her performance is not enhanced by an ill-fitting wig that is obviously intended to satirize ‘60s hairstyles.

Andrew Rein is a very fine Albert. He is dourly amusing and, with the help of Gardner’s sharp dialogue, sympathetic in his self-realization. Jeff Farber is on target as Arnold Burns, Murray’s show biz agent brother. A loving, patient and helpful brother and uncle, the straight-laced Arnold admires qualities in Murray which he could never emulate. Alex Zelenty is the real deal as Nick, bringing more nuance to the role than one would expect of so young an actor.

Best of all is Michael Irvin Pollard as Leo Herman, aka Chuckles the Chipmunk. The third act appearance of the sweaty, self-centered, and wounding Herman unlooses solid laughter. Grotesquely comic, insecure, and quick to lash out at others, Herman is a very rich character, and Pollard illuminates all of his facets, nailing all the big laughs in the process.

Will Rothfuss has done a super job with a richly detailed, accurate set. Somehow when I saw the single room apartment, I saw in my mind’s eye a particular old walk-up on New York’s West Side. The lived-in looking apartment is delightfully cluttered with literally hundreds of books, magazines, newspapers, photos, lamps, clocks, files, boxes, hats and assorted tchotchkes.

It is difficult to assess the contributions of director David Christopher because the quality of the uneven production seems to vary with each individual performance.

Oh, I haven’t yet mentioned Irving R. Feldman. Well, you see Irving R. Feldman 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. Well, A Thousand Clowns is in town, and that means that it is our time to join with Murray and Nick in their celebration.

A Thousand Clowns continues performances (Thursdays, Fri, Sat. 8 p.m. Sundays 2 p.m. Special Matinee Fri. 2/24) through March 5, 2006 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960. Box Office: 973-971-3714; online www.morrismuseum.com/

A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner; directed by David Christopher

Cast
Murray Burns………….Duncan M. Rodgers
Nick Burns……………………..Alex Zelenty
Albert Amundson……………….Andrew Rein
Sandra Markowitz…………………Lea Eckert
Arnold Burns………………………Jeff Farber
Leo Herman……….Michael Irvin Pollard


Photo: Warren Westura


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- Bob Rendell



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