By NOAH BURD
For 21st Century Media
When Herb Gardner wrote “A Thousand Clowns” in 1962, our pop-culture encyclopedias did not yet include the entry on the “man-child.” Yet the hero of Gardner’s play, Murray Burns (Will Dennis), is certainly one of the forerunners to the commitment phobic, playful but immature protagonists seen in modern-day films by people like Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow. Going back to the prototypical comedic man-child, it’s not hard to see why the character type has held continuing appeal for audiences and writers alike.
The story starts five months after Murray quits his job as a television writer for Chuckles the Chipmunk. Since becoming unemployed, Murray has preferred to spend his time setting up practical jokes with the weather service and playing hooky with his 12-year-old adopted nephew, Nick (Xander Dake), than to look for work. But when Murray’s easygoing bachelor lifestyle lands Nick in trouble with the school, social workers threaten to take Nick to a foster home unless Murray can show that he is fit to be a guardian.
Montgomery Theater’s wonderfully-acted current production of Gardner’s play is very funny, with thematic complexity to boot. Will Dennis captures Murray’s coolness and sly sense of humor. He makes it so easy for us to root for Murray, even when Murray is being a jerk. He’s just too clever to dislike. We admire him for disrupting a dull, complacent society. But we also want to admonish him when he refuses to understand the material risk facing him. We laugh when he yells into the alley behind his apartment, but we worry that perhaps by yelling he will turn from ironic comedian to lonely deadbeat. Dennis plays this tension so that it emerges naturally, never allowing Murray’s fatal flaw to turn him into the clichéd sad clown.
The supporting cast is also delightfully maladjusted. Jessica Bedford plays Sandra, a psychologist and social worker who has spent almost a decade in school only to find out she becomes too attached to patients once she is on the job. Bedford’s wonderfully energetic marathon crying makes a character who could have been defined by her hysterics into one who is simply hysterical. And Tony Braithwaite, who also directs, is absolutely brilliant as Leo, the manic television host of Chuckles the Chipmunk. In a single breath he goes from charismatic and larger than life to nervous, neurotic, and self-effacing. It’s truly as if an old TV personality has stepped onto the stage right out of 1962. Murray’s brother Arnold, played by Howie Brown, is perhaps the most grounded character in the show. Brown plays the straight man, holding his own as an admirable albeit straight-laced character against the zanier personalities surrounding him.
There are so many great little one-liners, befitting of a show about a scriptwriter and penned by a former cartoonist. Though some of the story deals with material that was controversial when the play was written (unwed mothers, casual sex), other plot elements now feel unmistakably 60s (the satirical take on social workers feels out of this time). There’s also the occasional proselyting monologue, an apparent requirement for comedies that dip their toe into drama.
But what makes “A Thousand Clowns” stand out from similar plays is that in all the various arguments and rebukes, Gardner and Braithwaite offer no presumption that any of the characters necessarily have everything figured out. Murray poignantly describes life without humor as “one long dental appointment interrupted occasionally by something exciting, like waiting or falling asleep.” They are the words of an idealist. But they are also the words of a man-child—of someone who is afraid to take things seriously lest he compromise his sense of superiority. Is Murray selfish or simply too imaginative for his own good? Gardner doesn’t indicate that it necessarily has to be one or the other.
Whatever you believe about Murray’s behavior in the end, you might need to go home and brush your teeth just to recover from laughing; “A Thousand Clowns” is about as far from a dental exam as you can get.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “A Thousand Clowns”
WHEN: Now through July 13
WHERE: Montgomery Theater, 124 N. Main St., Souderton.
INFO.: Check www.montgomerytheater.org or call (215) 723-9984.
CONNECT: On Twitter @MontgomTheater