It can be hard to figure out why a theater chooses to present certain plays—and I'm certainly wondering about Live Theatre Workshop's choice to produce Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns.
Of course, most theaters regularly commit to re-creating pieces which are decent representations of their period, and have solid scripts and interesting and durable themes. But if a theater takes on such a production, it needs to offer fresh, enlivening insights, and have the resources to offer a truly authentic rendering of the time and place in which the story was set.
Unfortunately, LTW's production, which opened last weekend, delivers none of this. It's an earnest effort with a few bright moments, but the show stumbles and stutters so much that we don't even realize when it ends—a dire indictment of its storytelling effectiveness.
With a light touch and a sense of fun, Gardner relates the tale of New Yorker Murray Burns (Cliff Madison), who has the daunting task of raising his sister's son; she dropped him off six years earlier and never bothered to reclaim him. Murray, single and unemployed, doesn't seem at all concerned, even when the children's-protection agency threatens to remove Nick (Kyle Everly) from his home. Twelve-year-old Nick seems to perceive the dicey situation more clearly than Murray, and he tries to goose his uncle into taking action—like getting a job. But Murray is a free spirit who'd rather spend his afternoons at the movies than pound the pavement in search of employment. That, as one would expect, gives rise to trouble. It's a comedy with muscle, and Gardner weaves his tale together skillfully.
Gardner's play premiered in 1962 and was nominated for a Tony Award; he also wrote the screenplay for the 1965 film, which was nominated for four Academy Awards (winning one) and several Golden Globes. One can understand why Gardner's story seemed fresh and was well-received; in the decade and a half after World War II, life for many had evolved into an urban-based, business-centric, button-downed version of the American Dream. Gardner's play reminded folks that not everyone is engineered to conform to this way of living—and that this might not be such a bad thing. Later in the decade, in fact, there was an all-out rebellion against the rigors of the American cookie-cutter approach to life—which yielded the "turn on, tune in, drop out" counterculture.
But that was then. We've heard this story; some of us even lived it. We've given our lungs a workout singing "I've Gotta Be Me." We've followed our bliss and taken the road less-travelled. And though it's never a bad thing to be reminded to stay true to oneself, LTW's effort does nothing to inspire us to do some sincere stock-taking.
Director Missie Scheffman sees this thread of Gardner's play clearly, and makes sure our sympathy lies with Murray. But Gardner's play is more complicated than that. It's a tale about compromise, about how we often have to look at the big picture—whether we want to or not—and sacrifice for the sake of those we love.
This is where the meat of Gardner's tale lies. It's the conflict that drives the story, and it's Murray's grappling with this conflict which should make us feel for him. But in Scheffman's vision, this critical part gets lost; Murray never really seems to understand what's at stake, and why. He may finally surrender, but it's not because he's had a genuine moment of truth where we see that he has learned something valuable.
Part of the problem lies with Madison's characterization. Madison is a competent actor, so perhaps he was steered this way, but his Murray has such a childlike quality that he often comes off as, well, a simpleton. And Gardner's story—about compromise and sacrifice—doesn't work with this kind of Murray. Madison's Murray is likable and sweet—an innocent, really. We need to see Murray struggle to transform his consciousness about who he is, what he wants and what he'll do to get it. We need to see the pain of his self-discovery as he confronts what he values in his life, and we need to feel his sense of loss in yielding to what is required of him.
But we don't. It's there on the page, but it doesn't translate to the stage. The result is that the climactic moment passes, and we are left wondering exactly where we have been led.
There is no lack of effort from the small cast, and they definitely deliver the comedy. Young Everly is quite delightful as Nick, and Rick Shipman, as Murray's brother and agent, gives us a likable Arnold, who knows who he is and has made peace with himself. Michael F. Woodson is funny—and alarming—as Leo "Chuckles the Chipmunk" Herman, Murray's former employer, who is trying to convince him to come back to write for the children's TV show he left several months earlier. Woodson's Leo is large—too large, really, for the scene that should focus on what's taking place with Murray. Shanna Brock and Andrew Wolverton round out the cast.
Perhaps A Thousand Clowns will find a firmer footing as its run continues. The show I saw was plagued with overlong scene changes, and it doesn't lead to a well-defined end.
Even though it does feel dated, Gardner's script provides enough heft to make the play funny, meaningful and moving to a contemporary audience. LTW's effort doesn't quite get us there.