Review: A Thousand Clowns at the Berkshire Theatre Group
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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Larry Murray: The Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge seems to be the preferred venue for comedies at the Berkshire Theatre Group, and with A Thousand Clowns they made that cranky old stage do a few new tricks, like a revolving set, changing from the New York apartment of Murray Burns (CJ Wilson) to the office of his brother, Arnold Burns (Andrew Polk). Last year we saw Sylvia on the same stage, with Rachel Bay Jones playing the dog in A.R. Gurney’s comedy. Here she plays Sandra Markowitz, the ditsy psychologist checking up on Murray, a comedy writer who has chosen to be unemployed rather than continue writing soul-sucking crap for the Chuckles the Chipmunk children’s TV show, and his young nephew Nick, played by Russell Posner.
What did you think of the cast, were they all reading from the same page, and did they mesh? I felt that they were all pretty individualistic, not completely blending together as a whole. And I think that might be just what the playwright Herb Gardner was trying to demonstrate, that you can be different and still get along.
Gail Burns: This is a play about individuals and individuality, so that didn’t bother me. I did wish that Wilson, Polk, and Posner, playing two brothers and their sister’s child, looked more plausibily like genetic relations.
But I thought it was not just the stage that was old here. I found A Thousand Clowns dated in both style and form. The fairly elderly audience we attended with got the laughs, but I think it would be inscrutably dull to a young crowd.
Larry: A Thousand Clowns ran on Broadway from April 1962 to April 1963. We were just leaving the beatnik era but were still a long way to the hippie days that were coming. Conformity was still in, and things like expressing non-mainstream thoughts were courting isolation, while divorce and one night stands were stuff of scandals and could even cost you your job. Of course all this went on, but in the dark, and whispers were the currency of gossip. Anyone born after the Eisenhower era (1953-1961) has no idea what a repressive, sexist, racist, homophobic nation we were when this play was on Broadway. The idea of an unemployed, free-thinking uncle raising his sister’s born-out-of wedlock-kid to think for himself was pretty scandalous. Keeping the times in which it was written in mind, this play was probably fairly revolutionary, and the way they introduced new ideas back then was to make people laugh first, the lesson followed.
Gail: Yes, it was revolutionary then, but now, with the shock value stripped away, all that is left are the laughs. Gardner is a skillful playwright, the characters are endearing and many of the laughs are still good ones, but the story has lost its punch.
Larry: I identified with Murray Burns, or at least the Murray part of him in which I saw the pain behind his outspoken and seemingly spontaneous personality. Behind the jokes, the songs, the devil may care attitude was someone anxiously searching for his personal purpose in life. In the best monologue in the play he explained his half-formed philosophy when he described the future he hoped to help create for his nephew, one in which he stood tall for who he was, not for what others kept trying to make him become. It was a rough-hewn Murray in conflict with his gentler Burns side. The Burns part was his echoing the famous Auntie Mame motto of life being a banquet while most poor suckers are starving to death. It’s an odd mixture, but the play was sort of like that for me.
Gail: I found that I never connected with Wilson’s Murray. I didn’t love him, didn’t hate him, didn’t empathize with him…I understood how I was supposed to relate to the other characters, but not to Murray, which may be why I didn’t enjoy the show as much as you.
But I was completely entranced by Jones’ luminous portrayal of Sandy Markowitz, which is written as the most stereotypical ditsy blonde 1960′s girl you can imagine. I mean, Gardner tells us that she holds a doctoral degree from a Boston area university which would have been a bold, nonconformist choice for a woman to make in the late 1950′s when the standing joke was that women went to college to earn their MRS degree, and yet she is written as being completely in the thrall of her fiance, Albert Amundson (James Barry), who is less well educated than she, and terrified of striking out or speaking out for herself until, rather nauseatingly, she is apparently released by a night spent in Murray’s bed. This is everything that was horrible about the 1950′s and 1960′s for American women, and yet Jones made me laugh and cry. I wanted to go out for coffee with her Sandy and trade war stories.
I guess I felt that Gardner introduced a pile of fascinating characters and sacrificed most of them at the altar of Murray Burns, who, as I said, failed to capture me. I would rather have had the play be about Sandy and Albert, or Arnold, than about Murray.
The character of Murray’s young nephew, Nick, the wise-beyond-his years wisecracking kid, was and is standard fare on TV and in film, but again Posner took me beyond the stereotype and gave me a kid I cared about. I loved his ukelele duet with Wilson on “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” where his changing voice was in full evidence but he kept singing out nonetheless. He’s a trouper!
I found the character of Leo Herman, aka Chuckles the Chipmunk, and his late stage appearance to be completely distracting and pointless, however, despite Jordan Gelber’s fine performance. Again, the I-Sold-My-Writer’s-Soul-to-an-Egocentric-Tv-Star schtick has been done to a turn in the intervening decades, and even at the time was being done better on The Dick Van Dyke Show. You and I saw this gimmick handled so brilliantly in William Finn’s A New Brain back in May that this inept attempt at it fell completely flat for me.
Larry: One of the reasons I found the character of Murray Burns so appealing and familiar is that his character was based on Herb Gardner’s friend, the humorist Jean Shepherd. In the 50′s and 60′s, Shepherd was what was called then a “free thinker” which meant someone who let you hear his stream of consciousness. Shepherd himself called it “abstract thinkism”. But the concept was new, and was simply not done in everyday social interactions back then, people edited everything they said very carefully.
“Measure your words” was the advice I always got, not thinking openly and freely as we do today. Our colleague Charles Giuliano likes to point out that I graduated summa cum laude from the Dale Carnegie School of How to Win Friends & Influence People. However those honors were withdrawn when I undertook my Masters at the School of Rusty Daggers. But somehow, Jean Shepherd always managed to prevail, regardless of the indoctrination.
Gail: Shepherd is best known today as the narrator of the classic holiday film A Christmas Story, which is based on his humorous essays. I was tickled to see that Jones is playing the Mother in the Broadway-bound stage play based on that film. She is perfect casting!
Larry: One of the annoying things that happened throughout the play was that whenever someone left the stage, a number of people in the audience applauded. Do you think they were glad to see them go? Exit applause is for those rare moments when something truly dramatic has just taken place on the stage, and that did not happen 6-8 times in one play. Maybe instead of the half baked standing ovation we are now going to undergo a new wave of audience misbehavior – applause as each actor departs. God help us.
Gail: Well, this was the press opening and the house is always full of friends and family of the cast and crew, and papered with major donors and company members. I doubt that that phenomenon will recur at subsequent performances.
Larry: If for no other reason than to relive those oppressive days – and laugh at them – people should see this play. There have been recurrent waves of nostalgia for those times over the years. As with all sentimental claptrap it remembers the good things and omits the bad. There was a repellent harshness of judgement lurking all around everyday life in those days.
Far From Heaven, the daring new musical at the Williamstown Theatre Festival takes these same themes from the same time period but in a completely different way.
Today things seem polarized between those who still cling to a bygone era and those who envision a better world to leave for the generations to come. But the truth is that young people continue to fight against the odds, on global warming, on worker equity, even as they are attempting to reconcile the need to find a job and earn a living with their individual beliefs. The average person still has to conform to make their way in much of the world.
What A Thousand Clowns shows is that meaningful work is as difficult to find today as it was fifty years ago. And when you fail to follow the rules, you find yourself in a whole heap of trouble.
It’s odd that all these thoughts come after seeing A Thousand Clowns which is, after all, simply an evening of comedy, and a very funny one at that. But underneath….there’s some real food for thought. Audiences can go and simply be entertained, or go and open up deeper thoughts about the issues this play raises.
Which raises the question, how do you rate this as a possible evening out for the visiting Aunt and Uncle from Sheboygan?
Gail: Oh they’ll love it! If you have an Aunt and Uncle visiting from Sheboygan book tickets now! This is classic straw hat summer stock theatre and that is really not the kind of safe choice Berkshire audiences have come to expect in these days of world premieres and new works. Although maybe BTG is being clever, rather than safe, and trying to capture that niche market who misses the good old days.
Larry: It is a bold move for the Berkshire Theatre Festival to put this play in front of audiences once again (BTF mounted a production in 1982 with great success), and there’s a lot more here than just laughs.
Turns out that comedy is just another way to probe deeply into what we call “everyday” life.
A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner, at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge, MA, July 16-28, 2012. Kyle Fabel – DIrector, Sets – Randall Parsons, Costumes – Olivera Gajic, Lights – Daniel Kotlowitz. Albert Amundson – James Barry, Leo Herman – Jordan Gelber, Sandra Markowitz – Rachel Bay Jones, Arnold Burns – Andrew Polk, Nick Burns – Russell Posner, Murray Burns – CJ Wilson. About Two hours fifteen minutes with one fifteen minute intermission. Berkshire Theatre Croup Box Office 413-997-4444.