A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner. Directed by John Rando. Starring Tom Selleck. Also starring Barbara Garrick, Nicolas King, Bradford Cover, with Robert LuPone and Mark Blum. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald.
Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, the current revival of which opened last night at the Longacre Theatre, is now 39 years old and showing its age.
The original Broadway production, which featured a stellar cast including Jason Robards, William Daniels, and Sandy Dennis, was very much a product of its time. Clowns was, in the early 60s, a rather avant guard comedy about “a nonconformist uncle who is raising his precocious nephew in his own unique way” (a way which guarantees the inevitable intervention by the Child Welfare Board) and included the mandatory dismissal of paid employment as a valid lifestyle. It now seems nothing more than a quaint curiosity, a toothless reminder of a time when any sort of rebellion was the proper concern and right of a charismatic hero. And, after 40 years of news reports covering every imaginable form of child abuse, we can no longer comfortably accept the play’s premise as totally benign.
Having said that, Clowns is a good example of a well made play and Gardner’s construction remains strong enough to hold together and provide a somewhat interesting evening at the theatre even with this lackluster revival. John Rando has directed with his usual attention to detail, ensuring each scene plays smoothly and that every necessary point is made without undue flourish or fanfare. Though the pace seems deliberately kept slow, at the expense of many of the laughs, the play never actually comes to a complete halt and there is never any question of what’s happening on stage. Never taking any risks, Rando’s direction presents us with a production both competent and bland.
Tom Selleck doesn’t take any risks either, avoiding all extremes of emotion or personality in his portrayal of Murray Burns, the freewheeling uncle who is nothing if not kind, compassionate, understanding, and always, always even-tempered - which a few moments of passive-aggressive behavior in the middle of the second act does nothing to belie. Selleck is here playing the good guy, the hero, and he isn’t about to let you forget it for a second. Oddly enough, for Selleck this approach works and if this Murray Burns strongly reminds the audience of Selleck’s signature television character, at least their expectations are being met in an undemanding way.
Of the remaining cast, only the always dependable Robert Lupone (as Arnold Burns) and Mark Blum (as Leo Herman) make a lasting impression; Lupone for having the gumption to get mad and raise his voice in anger and Blum for an exquisite vignette involving the insecurities of a successful Chipmunk.
Allen Moyer’s sets are both clever and amusing. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are remarkably appropriate to the period. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is superb without being intrusive.