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‘A Thousand Clowns’ puts family dynamics on stage

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By ERIN WEAVER
21st Century Media

On the top floor of Montgomery Theatre, up three flights of teetering old steps in a small room that overlooks Souderton’s Main Street, Will Dennis is singing “That’s My Baby” and playing the ukulele, having just been corrected by director Tony Braithwaite for missing a few notes.
After correcting his playing — or starting to, in what Dennis calls a “not-right-now fix” — he jokingly sings off-key, too loudly and with the wrong lyrics.
“Everyone take five,” Braithwaite says. “Will is in time out. Go get his understudy!” he jokes.
They are two weeks into rehearsals for Montgomery Theatre’s latest production, Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns.”
After a brief break, Dennis and Braithwaite are discussing their passion for theatre — and how it justifies what their bank accounts may look like.

Tony Braithwaite and Will Dennis star in “A Thousand Clowns” at Montgomery Theater in Souderton. Photo by Angela McMichael

Tony Braithwaite and Will Dennis star in “A Thousand Clowns” at Montgomery Theater in Souderton. Photo by Angela McMichael

This is the tone for the show’s daily rehearsals, but it’s also the tone for the show itself — sweet and cheerful, but also pensive and introspective.
“This show has been a nice way to validate that my bank account is not what the Chase Manhattan guys may have, but we laugh every day here at Montgomery Theatre, and I’ll take that to the bank any day of the week and twice on Sundays,” Braithwaite says.
Braithwaite, who has the epitome of a director’s commanding — but genial — voice, says the show will inspire the audience to question their own path in life, and whether it fulfills them.
The show centers around Murray Burns, a struggling comic who quit his job and has been living on unemployment money while taking care of his nephew, Nick Burns. Murray feels restricted by the societal working conventions, and opts instead to pursue a life of creativity.
“The universality of the play has to do with Murray, who has followed the voices inside him that say to do what you want, do it with integrity, do it with passion and the rest will fall into place,” Braithwaite says. “It’s always valuable to check in with yourself and ask if you’re on the right path. Often, people will realize the life’s been sucked out of them 20 years after it started. I think it’s always healthy to take a look at that, and the play almost forces an audience member to ask those questions.”
Both Braithwaite and Dennis, who plays Murray in the show, agree that putting on “A Thousand Clowns” has validated their passion for the theatre.
“As an actor in the theatre profession, it’s very easy to draw on the ideas of being passionate about something that society doesn’t necessarily understand and support. It’s not really a stretch there,” Dennis says.
The show makes itself approachable to the audience in several ways, Braithwaite explains. In discussing the play, the phrase “There’s also the theme of…” is used on multiple occasions. The show has an unusual family dynamic, and the question of how to properly raise a child.
“There’s a great theme in the play of “what is best for you” — you singular and you plural,” Braithwaite says. “They are constantly coming up against each other’s views of what would be best for one another, and how much of what you believe is right for you is right for anyone else.”
As for the family dynamic, Howie Brown, who plays Murray’s brother Arnold, says the audience finds it immediately relatable.
“It’s almost like watching Modern Family,” he says. It’s like watching a family dysfunction on stage that anyone can relate to.”
The dynamic between Brown and Dennis is also unique, because the two actors have known each other for years and are now playing brothers in the show.
“How did we meet? On Match.com,” Brown jokes. “No, we’ve known each other since high school and just stayed good friends. We’ve done some shows together but we’ve never done a show where we’re related, so it’s been interesting to adjust to that reality.”
The cast dynamic has been one of the show’s early successes, Brown adds, noting that the easy relationships will translate on to the stage, and the show’s accessibility will be one of its strongest suits.
That is, Braithwaite jokes, if Dennis can master his ukulele in time.
“The audience watching this is going to have a very easy in,” Braithwaite says. “The show is going to feel like talking to someone you’ve just met and feeling like you’ve known them for your whole life.”

IF YOU GO
WHAT: “A Thousand Clowns”
WHEN: June 18-July 13
WHERE: Montgomery Theater, 124 N. Main St., Souderton.
TICKETS: $25-$35
INFO.: Check www.montgomerytheater.org or call (215) 723-9984.
CONNECT: On Twitter @MontgomTheater

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