"A Thousand Clowns" stands the test of time
The main problem with doing a 50-year-old play is, well, it's a 50-year-old play.
What was funny, meaningful and timely 50 years ago often becomes pathetic, trivial and outdated 50 years later. Not every old play is "Death of a Salesman."
Mounting an old play for today's audience is fraught with risk, but great acting, great direction and a wonderful environment can reduce that risk. In the case of "A Thousand Clowns," which opened Friday night at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, that risk is not only reduced but eliminated.
Herb Gardner wrote this play, which opened in 1962 with Jason Robards in the role of Murray Burns. For Murray there are two worlds, one belonging to him and one belonging to everybody else. The only guest in his world is his 13-year-old nephew Nick, who lives with him after being deserted by his mother.
Murray is funny and his humor leads the entire play, taking a journey into the kind of humor that pokes fun at people, places and things but has a hint of pathos at its core. You wonder if Murray is really Canio, the sad clown who hides his tears from the world in "Pagliacci."
This is a play that can tire you out if they push the jokes too hard or too fast. But, director Jonathan West has allowed the play to breathe and to move along at a delicate pace that lets us attach ourselves to the characters. West is a director who can pull a chuckle, a gasp or a tear out of an audience in seamless moments.
The story concerns an attempt by the Bureau of Child Welfare to examine the living arrangement of Murray, who seems reluctant to find gainful employment, and Nick, who is happy to be where he is. The bureau wants to take Nick away and Murray just wants to be left alone.
Tom Klubertanz fills the role of Murray with both the joys and sorrows that make him such an interesting character. He has a face that shows his every passing emotion and lets us see the churn that goes on inside him. It's easy to play Murray just for laughs, but Klubertanz has found the layers that make Murray not only funny, but interesting.
It would be easy to think of Murray as just a comedian, but we discover that it's not humor that drives him. As he tells his brother, "What's the point if I leave everything exactly the way I find it?"
Perhaps one of the finest pieces of this play is the performance of Matt Daniels, who is carving out a reputation as one of the finest actors this city has to offer. Daniels is one of the few who can climb to the mountaintop of eloquence without the help of any words.
As the representative of the welfare bureau, his arrival at Murray's home is priceless. He spends a never-ending minute deciding how best to sit on a folding lawn chaise lounge that Murray has spread. No words are used, but the laughs start small and end in crescendo as he finally sits. Daniels is an actor who never moves without a reason. We should all be able to move like this.
Beth Mulkerron, whose character forms the other half of the bureau official pair and ends up falling in love with Murray, steals the entire play with a crying jag that is a cross between the very best of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. It is so funny that we all wished she'd just keep on crying so we could all keep on laughing.
There are no weak spots in this cast. And it's the actors who take this 50-year-old play and move it into 2012 without gimmicks or tricks. Ten years ago the play was revived on Broadway and Tom Selleck, who played Murray, was so savaged by reviewers that the play ran for a blink.
There's no danger of that here, as this run of the play is going to be a ride filled with laughs, a tear or three and the joy watching a man who lives life on his own terms, even if he's the only one who knows what those terms are.
"A Thousand Clowns" runs through Aug. 26 at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
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