A Thousand Clowns, Herb Gardner’s successful Broadway comedy first produced in 1962, is running at the Berkshire Theatre Group (Fitzpatrick Main Stage) until July 28. The play, which a few years later was made into a film, starred Jason Robards and Barry Gordon, who repeated their stage performances. The play’s theme of conformity (or non-conformity, in the case of Murray Burns, the central character) was very much of its time. Now, fifty years later, the struggle to retain one’s personality in a dog-eat-dog world may still have currency, but as laid out by Gardner, the arguments are more tired than compelling.
Murray Burns, a television writer, has given up his job because he cannot surrender to the daily grind. He cannot buy into a routine that millions of others can and he has no resources for managing the dilemma – no resources other than shouting at his neighbours and passersby on the street, talking to the recorded voice of the weather report he calls up on his phone and shutting down efforts by his brother for him to return to work. In addition, Burns takes care of his 12-year old nephew, an old-young man whose mother, Murray’s sister, abandoned many years before. But the thing is that the older man is training the youngster to see the world and to live in it as he does. So this not-so-odd couple shares a degree of cynicism that is cute on the kid but casts a dubious shadow on his future.
The Child Welfare Board arrives in the persons of Albert Amundson – repressed, humourless – and Sandra Markowitz – repressed, insecure – and they have to file a report about the living situation in which they find young Nick. It’s apparent that they will recommend removing the child from Murray’s care. The situation moves from here to the world of pure fiction as Murray and Sandra find themselves attracted to one another enough that she spends the night with him. This uptight, frightened social worker stays with the eccentric and irresponsible (her words) older guy and then, so turned on by him is she, that she decides to redecorate his apartment and to move in.
The balance of the play focuses on Murray’s efforts to find work so that he can maintain his watch over his nephew. Finally, he does return to the television show he had walked out of just before the start of the play. Nick questions the move as cowardice, but Murray explains that it is what is both demanded and required. Sandra, now called Sandy (sex with a bohemian can do that), returns more determined than ever to redecorate both the apartment and Murray’s life. And the curtain falls with Murray sitting on his window ledge letting it all happen.
The ending of the play is a rather disheartening moment: we’ve watched a man struggle to stay outside of the mainstream and we’ve heard him rant about why he cannot simply walk into what he sees as a non-life. We’ve met some of the people that define the world he has left and we understand very well the decision that Murray Burns has made. We’ve even seen him in a brief relationship with a young woman that he has been able to reassure, though hardly enough to convince us that theirs is worth much more than one night. And we’ve seen him train his young charge about the ways of the world. And just like that, it all changes gear and Murray Burns sits and takes it. The play ends and the guy has lost.
Gardner knew full well that he was writing a comedy with a social perspective, but he was more interested in the comedy than the societal analysis. And he is adept with throwaway, observational comedy. Less so with plotting and even less with character development. The play’s limited strength is the dialogue written for Murray and for his nephew, Nick. They are, after all, the heart of the piece, and they draw us closer to this prefabricated world than any of the others can. CJ Wilson plays Murray Burns with considerable charm and skilled understatement, but he is not ideally cast and never manages to create a man who has stepped ‘off the world’ so that we can understand his internal battle. The actor is just too together, too physically in charge of the worlds he inhabits, both inside and outside his apartment, for us to buy into his philosophy. The window shouting exchanges with neighbours and the telephone shtick never read as anything more than scripted cleverness. And this is not an attack on Wilson – I’m not sure that the writing itself can get past its two-dimensional depth. Russell Posner plays the nephew with ease, charm and a strikingly stagey dialect that no one else shares, suggesting that he is living far away from his home turf.
Of the other company members, Rachel Bay Jones and James Barry, playing the couple from the Child Welfare Board, have been encouraged to adopt a cartoon-quality vocal and physical approach that tips the play into farce off the top with the result that there is no danger or risk for anyone. As staged, these two representatives of the ‘outside world’ merely affirm Murray’s bias and they demonstrate to Nick that his uncle holds all the winning cards. The added problem with this directorial decision (Kyle Fabel is the director) is that the relationship between Murray and Sandra can’t register as anything but unlikely after such an introduction. Andrew Polk finds the right balance, as Murray’s brother, playing very easy at the top and managing to inject warmth and humanity in his longer second act scene. Jordan Gelber plays Leo Herman, the television star that Murray cannot abide. Gelber holds nothing back as he brings Murray’s offstage nightmare to onstage reality, and the actor deserves much credit for offering no apology as he does so. The role demands the discomfort that Gelber creates.
Thousand Clowns” has had only two Broadway revivals, the first starring
a too-old Judd Hirsch (a last minute replacement for a dismissed and
equally too-old Robert Klein) and the second starring an unlikely Tom
vehicle would seem an ideal magnet for many male stars, but the play’s
passed and its comic targets have no bull’s-eyes and, without them, the
just don’t mount up.