A THOUSAND CLOWNS
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Criterion Center.
Back in 1962, when "A Thousand Clowns" first appeared on Broadway, nonconformity was the ultimate form of rebellion. America still had not evolved greatly from the conservative 1950s, and the generally accepted male role was to try to procure a high-paying job in the business world, with plenty of opportunity for career advancement.
The central figure of Herb Gardner's play, the irrepressible Murray Burns, has chosen to break this mold, abandon his job as a successful children's television writer, and spend his days wandering the city of New York with his nephew, visiting the Statue of Liberty and waving bon voyage to cruise ships.
In the 1990s (assuming that money is not a problem), Murray's then-radical choice is seen as a viable lifestyle. This lends a quaintly dated quality to this comedy, which is being revived on Broadway at the Roundabout - the only Broadway opening during the off-season summer months.
Of course, some things never change. Women, in particular, may find that the freewheeling, commitment-phobic Murray is the personification of their worst nightmare of a man.
In the play, Murray (Judd Hirsch, in the role played so memorably by Jason Robards in the original Broadway production and 1965 film) is fighting to retain custody of his young nephew Nick (Dov Tiefenbach). But the social workers investigating the case disapprove of his unwillingness to fit in with the rest of society. Unless Murray shapes up, finds a job, and joins the herd, Nick is going to be sent to a foster home.
Murray buys a new suit and dutifully goes out on interviews arranged by his loving brother and agent (Donald Margulies). The best offer comes from Murray's former employer, the unctuous and obnoxious Leo Herman, a.k.a. Chuckles the Chipmunk (John Procaccino). But Murray despises him and so is faced with the choice: swallow his pride and give up his freedom, or risk losing his nephew.
Gardner's comedy still shines, both with emotion and with extremely funny lines (Murray's comment about his sister: "We communicate mainly by rumor"). And its theme will still resonate with anyone who has ever wrestled with the impulse to go to the movies instead of looking for a job.
Unfortunately, the current production, directed by Scott Ellis, is never as sharp as it should be. Partly, this had to do with the performances. Judd Hirsch, a master of the deadpan, comic hangdog expression, is both too old and not lightfooted enough to play the impish Murray. Here, the instant relationship that develops between him and Sandra Markowitz (Marin Hinkle), the flustered social services psychologist, is a little hard to swallow.
Probably no one could improve on the performance of Barry Gordon in the film as Nick, a character described as a "40-year-old midget." But Dov Tiefenbach is more than able to hold his own trading wisecracks with Hirsch.
Ultimately, neither the play's laughs nor its darker moments come forth with full effectiveness. It's a pity, since "A Thousand Clowns" is a valuable reminder of a time when an individualistic lifestyle was a daring choice and not the subject of flattering magazine cover stories.