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Regional Reviews: Seattle

Warm Chuckles abound in A Thousand Clowns at Intiman

Also see David's review of Below the Belt

Matthew Boston, Julie Jesneck and
Nick Robinson

Though showing its age a bit, Herb Gardner's warm, touching charm comedy A Thousand Clowns receives a solid, well-cast revival in the current staging at Intiman Theatre. First produced in 1962 on Broadway, it ran a successful year, toured, became a staple of regional and community theatres in the '60s and '70s, and was reverentially filmed (by its Broadway director Fred Coe) with most of its original Broadway cast, earning multiple Oscar nominees including Best Picture in 1965.

To many, the play is familiar from being a key source of rich monologues, which actors in high school on up mined for several decades. The monologues and the play as a whole still work nearly fifty years later, and the vibrant cast, led by Matthew Boston in the central role of bohemian dreamer Murray Burns, do it justice. Sari Burns provides thoughtful direction, though the pace is rather languid. Over three hours, a charm comedy, even one as good as this, starts to wear out its welcome.

At its core, Gardner's tale is a love story between Murray and his precocious nephew Nick, whom he is raising. Though a talented writer, Murray can't manage to stay at a job, and this arouses the concern of the Child Welfare Office, who dispatches the uptight, by the books Albert, and his heart-on-her-sleeves associate/fiancée Sandra to investigate. Sandra winds up enamored of (and ultimately in bed with) Murray, while the disgruntled Albert sets the wheels in motion to have Nick placed in foster care unless Arnold can find gainful work and provide Nick a more suitable life. With the help of his long-suffering elder brother/agent Arnold, Murray swallows hard and considers going back to work for obnoxious Leo Herman, aka TV kids show star Chuckles the Chipmunk, and ultimately his loving affection for Nick trumps his disdain for the status quo.

The role of Murray is tackled by Boston with exuberance and high energy, and grounds him one foot in reality and the other in a fantasy world. The play wouldn't fly without a genuine spark between Murray and Nick, and Boston has terrific chemistry with his palpably charming onstage nephew Nick Robinson, a young actor Seattle audiences have seen grow up before our eyes in recent seasons, and who is now clearly ready to take on teen roles. As Sandra, Julie Jesneck is quirky and irrepressibly engaging, and a delight to watch as the character sheds her uptight outer layer. She and Boston make an agreeably odd couple, and one to root for. Bradford Farwell keeps Albert, stuffed shirt and all, from being a wholly unlikable character, but merely well intentioned and overly by the books. David Pichette is satisfying as ever as Arnold Burns, allowing us to see that Murray's responsible older brother hasn't lost the fanciful side of himself, and Tim Hyland earns laughs and instills some sympathetic edges to the bombastic role of Leo.

Nayna Ramey has created a marvel of a two-level set, centered around Arnold's disheveled apartment, while above we see suggestions of the midtown madness all around it. Marcia Dixcy Jory's costume design is a perfect distillation of early 1960s middle-class couture.

Herb Gardner didn't write laugh-a-minute one-liners ala contemporary Neil Simon. But even now, A Thousand Clowns is good for at least a hundred warm smiles and chuckles.

A Thousand Clowns plays at Intiman Theatre in Seattle Center now through June 17th. For tickets and information contact the Intiman box office at 206-269-1900 or visit them online at

Photo: Chris Bennio

- David Edward Hughes

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