REVIEW WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
As the lights go down on the Arden Theatre production of Bruce Graham’s “Funnyman,” the title character, Chick Sherman (Carl N. Wallnau), is intensely contemplating a large tin can, missing its label exposing its horizontal ribs.
The can is a prop Sherman, a comic famous from vaudeville, Broadway, and one signature film, employs in an avant garde drama he is doing off-Broadway at the end of a dwindling career the risky booking is meant to rekindle.
On opening night, Sherman didn’t get the laughs he expected from shtick involving the can, so in spite of obvious audience approval and assured success, he continues to work on the bit to make the laughs bigger and more meaningful to him.
Chick Sherman is a perfectionist. He does not have much a sense of humor off the stage. He barely has a life or takes joy in anything, including his smart and accomplished daughter. Entertaining has been his lot since infancy, and what Chick craves most is delighted approval from strangers in the form of recognition, laughs, and a table reserved for him at Lindy’s, a famous Broadway restaurant in 1959, the year in which “Funnyman” is set.
Graham, a deft comedian himself, consistently loading his plays with sharp jokes, snarky one-liners, and humorous observations, constructs “Funnyman” in the way he says the playwright of Sherman’s off-Broadway venture develops his. He starts by showing Sherman to be a comic, if dour and pathetic, figure rife with tics, mannerisms, neuroses and superstitions, and then reveals a man who only knows one life and one way to a live it, a man we come to understand and respect for decency and dedication he hides in the quiet and privacy to which he retreats when an audience can’t see him.
Graham is a prolific playwright. Since the opening of “Burkie” in 1984, he has written close to two dozen plays, most of which have had their debuts in the Philadelphia region from which the Delaware County native hails. “Funnyman” is his finest work to date, hardly a light judgment considering Graham is the author of “Coyote on a Fence,” “Minor Demons,” and “Stella and Lou.”
“Funnyman” is a culmination of Graham’s best traits. It shows his experience as a plotter, an inventor of details, a weaver of literary threads, and a dramatic storyteller. Graham’s work is always honest, but “Funnyman” has texture, perspective, and character insight that run deeper than in most of Graham’s plays.
He has composed a portrait of a complex, complicated man who is not always pleasant but is constantly interesting and worth the trouble others take to cope with his quirks or deal with a opaqueness he cultivated to keep his feelings or true self from being known.
As Graham’s play unravels, we feel more sympathy for Chick and understand why his clowning and affability are reserved only for strangers. The transition from grouchy, dismissive codger to solid professional and scarred man with a childhood and young marriage too difficult to face, is a moving one, reminiscent of character progressions in works from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and Wallnau lets us see the bruises and triumphs Chick endured while “Funnyman” director, Matt Pfeiffer, maintains a dramatic tone that illuminates Chick’s story, his daughter’s determination to know her identity by delving into his, and the internal politics of the theater.
“Funnyman” engages constantly as it builds toward discoveries and revelations that make it more poignant and emotionally satisfying. Pfeiffer knows when to have his cast emphasize the comedy Graham has built into his dialogue and when to let the serious and affecting have their day. He tempers Graham’s tendency to undercut the tense, tender, or difficult with a gag. The way Pfeiffer blended Graham’s three major plot threads, and guided Chick’s evolution via Wallnau’s performance, provided the gravitas “Funnyman” requires to be an involving drama rather than a deft comedy.
Chick Sherman is a star when we meet him. Everyone who encounters him acknowledges that. His longtime agent, Milt Karp (Kenny Morris) indulges and manipulates Chick. His daughter, Katherine (Emilie Krause), living with Chick in New York after being shunted to boarding schools and shut out from all but the financial comfort he could provide, resents his diffidence while desiring to know him better, and to know more about her mother, who died at age 24. A sharp off-Broadway director refuses to acknowledge Chick’s greatness while the author of avant garde play adores Chick in the way the French adore Jerry Lewis and is ecstatic Chick agrees to appear in his work.
Stardom is shown in several ways. We see Chick chafing at rehearsals and the filming of commercials that promote an antacid. We also see his professional obsession to get that bit with a can exactly right.
In Pfeiffer’s production, the bit involving the can needs work. It doesn’t rate the laughs Chick suggests it will get. And laughs are Chick’s oxygen. Also, the antacid commercials we see are too broad and below the standard an advertising agency would accept. We see Chick’s makeup too clearly, and his mannerisms are a little too exaggerated, even for the brand of broad comedy Chick is meant to represent.
These are cavils considering all that Graham. Pfeiffer, and Wallnau get right.
Kenny Morris is marvelous as Karp. He is enjoyably subtle when Karp lies outright to everyone to get a deal done, and he is piercingly sincere in his important dealings with Chick and Katherine.
Keith Conallen does a lively comic turn as Victor La Plant, the playwright. He is delightfully flamboyant in a Williamsesque way while exuding the charm of the great Tennessee.
Charlie DelMarcelle finds the perfect line between comedy and intellectual hauteur as the off-Broadway director, Baroni.
Emilie Krause shows determination as Katherine, who presages the strides women will make in the decade to come. Krause becomes stronger as Katherine’s relationship with Chick comes to a head and conveys many emotions in her expression and voice. Brian Cowden is amusingly easygoing as the young man interested in Katherine.
Carl N. Wallnau has the difficult job of expressing Chick’s comic persona and inventing the physical and vocal mannerisms, including the signature expression, Wow-za!, that the world knows. He is proficient at that but is better at showing the emotional range, including the suffering silence, Chick lives.
Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set is efficient, Alison Roberts’s costumes correct for each character, and Thom Weaver’s lighting on the mark. Sound designer Jorge Cousineau modulates the baseball games Chick listens to so you can learn what entertains Chick without drowning out the dialogue.