Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Funnyman" at Northlight Theatre

New York City, 1959. Fading vaudeville comic Chick Sherman, along with his long-suffering agent, tries to revive his career with a role in an avant-garde off-Broadway play. While his grown daughter searches for answers from her absentee showbiz father, a lifetime of private and professional struggles rise to the surface, cracking the polished public persona of the world's favorite former "funny man."

Funnyman marks Northlight's fourth world premiere with playwright Bruce Graham, author of The Outgoing Tide, Stella & Lou and White Guy on the Bus.

Running Time: approximately 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission.

Buy tickets.  Now.  One of my favorite playwrights, Bruce Graham, has a new show starring the terrific George Wendt & Tim Kazurinsky, as well as Amanda Drinkall (Venus in Fur, Goodman).  This is one of Graham's best plays, despite a horrible (but correctable) misstep at the beginning that nearly sinks the show.  More on that later.

When you see the show, as you really should, be sure to read the program notes and examine informational displays in the lobby (except for the one about Bert Lahr's wife Mercedes, which gives away too much information.)  The premise here is that Chick Sherman (Wendt), three parts Bert Lahr to one part Buster Keaton, is prodded by his long-time agent (Kazurinsky) to accept a role in an off-Broadway production of an avant-garde play.  It is based on both Lahr's and Keaton's experiences with Samuel Beckett projects directed by Alan Schneider, a condescending pompous ass who directed pivotal productions of Beckett and Albee in the fifties and early sixties.

The subplot involves Sherman's daughter (Drinkall) trying to discover something, anything about her mother from her secretive father.

Now -- the play itself is not a Wacky, Slapstick Comedy.  It's a typical Graham mix of comedy and drama; what used to be called a "play," before people demanded narrow specification.  It is very funny, but rendered many audience members damp-eyed near the end.  Not me, of course.  Tower of strength, here.  Really.

Graham is a playwright who knows how to construct a script for maximum entertainment value.  He wants people to get sucked into the world of his play, and he succeeds beautifully.  Chick Sherman is a complex man - uneducated, but fascinated by a script he doesn't understand; a working actor, but tyrannical to the people who hire him; and supposedly a cold, aloof fellow, unemotional about anything but theater.  Supposedly.

George Wendt is wonderful as the grumpy hypochondriac Chick, a man who flat-out knows comedy and suffers fools less than gladly.  Sharp comic timing and powerful dramatic work.  It's one of the more magnificent performances you'll see this year.

Tim Kazurinsky is lovable as Chick's agent, Milt "Junior" Karp, who wants to help his old-school client bridge the gap in new theatrical tastes and revitalize his career.  Kazurinsky is able to play lovable, but with bite.

As Chick's spunky daughter Katharine, Amanda Drinkall goes toe-to-toe with Wendt in what seems to be a last ditch attempt to establish some sort of relationship with him.  Her performance is winning and real.

The rest of the cast is terrific as well - Steve Haggard as Katharine's boyfriend Matthew, Rob Lindley as playwright Victor LaPlant (based more on Tennessee Williams than Samuel Beckett) and Michael Perez as Alan Schneider-esque Nathan Wise all do brilliant work.  Lindley is hilarious and the Comedy Student in my soul loved the skewering of Alan Schneider.

B.J. Jones' direction was crisp and smooth.  The play flowed well through the various playing areas of Jeffrey D. Kmiec's great set.

* The preshow music contains Catch Our Act at the Met by Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray, from Two on the Aisle.  There was no need to speed it up so that they sounded like the Chipmunks.  It made singing along difficult.

* The lobby display about Bert Lahr's wife Mercedes gives away too much information.  Don't read it, because you'll be able to figure out where the climax of the play is going.  Read all the other background material, however.

* Nearly killed the show: both acts open with filmed segments of Chick Sherman doing commercials, as did Lahr and Keaton.  Fine.  However... it was decided that Chick should be a deadpan comic like Keaton, while retaining Lahr's goofiness.

A. I'm not the first writer to state that "deadpan" doesn't really apply to Keaton.  His face was greatly expressive.  He just didn't smile.  Closeups of Wendt in the commercials show an unsmiling face and completely dead eyes.  Dead eyes are not funny ones; they're actually kind of frightening.

B. A director of a revue once asked me and another actor to perform Who's on First, imitating not Abbott and Costello, but Laurel and Hardy.  I said, "But it won't work; it's an entirely different rhythm.  Laurel and Hardy doing Who's on First would take days."  And that's the issue with these commercials:

Commercials with Buster Keaton were usually silent and had him calmly reacting to strange situations or causing the situations himself, such as drawing a hat/coat rack in chalk and then hanging his hat and coat on it.  They were strictly Situational commercials.  Lahr's commercials depended completely on his persona; confused, panicked, surly, amazed, distrustful.  Vastly expressive facially.  Lahr's commercials were Personality commercials.  So here's the issue - Wendt has been directed to perform Bert Lahr Personality commercials as Buster Keaton Situational commericals.  And it isn't a bit funny.  So right from the get-go, we're told that this is a legendary comic, but what we're shown of him isn't funny, due entirely to the way it was directed.

And this is highly fixable.  Wendt doesn't have to smile, just let his face come alive without smiling.  Catch phrases don't land from inanimate delivery.  The play recovers nicely, but it shouldn't need to recover at all.  I wouldn't bother so much about it, but it comes right at the beginning and sets a wrong tone.

That picky complaint aside, Wendt, Kazurinsky and company, with Graham's script, provide one of the most entertaining nights you'll spend in a theater.  So, go spend.


Funnyman runs through October 11.  Reservations and information available here: Northlight Theatre

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