Now through March 6th on the Arcadia Stage at Arden Theatre Company is a “rolling” World Premiere (in conjunction with Northlight Theatre in Ohio) of Bruce Graham’s dramedy, Funnyman. Taking place in 1959, aging Vaudevillian comic, Chick Sherman tries to revive his career by appearing in an Avant-Garde Off-Broadway play while his daughter, Katherine, attempts to piece together the missing story of the mother she never knew.
After reading John Lahr’s book, “Confessions of a Cowardly Lion”, wherein he writes about his father, Burt Lahr’s experiences in performing “Waiting For Godot”, Mr. Graham was inspired to write this play. Graham claims the fact that comedians are never taken seriously until they undertake a dramatic role, always bothered him.
The power of Mr. Graham’s play lies in his perfectly constructed, richly drawn characters that we all seem to want to care about. And what Mr. Graham gets so right is that comedy is serious business and comedians are not always funny offstage. In fact, a goodly number of them are disaffected, unhappy campers. This point was driven home by my own experience with a stand-up comedian who was a fellow presenter at a special museum exhibit. Before allowing the crowd to enter the exhibit area, we had to prep them with the do’s and don’ts of viewing 2,000 year old artifacts. I would usually include a joke or two to put the patrons at ease. When I asked Rob why he didn’t employ his comedic skills during this pre-admission warm-up, he replied, “I’m not on the clock.”
Veteran performer, Carl N. Wallnau is supremely engaging as the workaholic Chick Sherman, whose only happiness is gained by the amount of applause he can produce from any given audience. Haunted by demons from his past, he is a man who can’t stomach physical contact – even with his own daughter. The beauty of Mr. Wallnau’s performance is that we never chastise him for his inadequacies as a parent, but rather sympathize with his ever present inner pain. Emilie Krause is terrific as Katherine, the daughter who can never seem to break through her father’s wall of torment. Though valiantly trying to connect with him, she still retains her independence as a blossoming young woman. Kenny Morris is just so lovable as Milt (Junior) Karp, the understanding agent who coddles Chick with all his demanding idiosyncrasies. Brian Cowden is quite droll as Katherine’s love interest. And Keith Conallen does a bit of a star turn as the gay, alcoholic, southern playwright, Victor La Plant.
The minimalistic set serves the play well, with set pieces (a desk,
an upholstered chair, a row of dressing room lights) rolling in and out
effortlessly. Appearing just as effortless is the direction by Matt Pfeiffer
that keeps this little love song to showbiz rolling along. Of course,
it goes without saying that a Bruce Graham play is invariably going to
be funny. And it is – but also terribly touching at the same time. If
you are a Bruce Graham fan, or even if you’re not – it’s a must see.