August 05, 2009

*MCT's "A Thousand Clowns," Belrose Theatre, 2005

*PLEASE NOTE: While on temporary leave, I am taking the opportunity to post some of my favorite past columns and reviews, both to give them new life and to pay tribute to the artists contained therein. The following review of Marin Classic Theater's 2005 production of "A Thousand Clowns," for example, is dedicated to the memory of MCT co-founder and artistic director Artie Gilbert, whose contribution to Marin community theater is beyond measure. Gilbert died at 61, Jan. 25, 2006.

-- ML

By Mark Langton

IJ Correspondent

In an ongoing attempt to strike the perfect balance between their dedication to classic works of American theater and their desire to stage something bland enough to pack ‘em in, the San Anselmo-based Marin Classic Theater has picked a marginal winner with their current revival of Herb Gardner’s 1962 comedy, “A Thousand Clowns,” now playing at the Belrose Theater in San Rafael.

Whether or not the play is an American “classic” is arguable, but it is decidedly American, and, as a funny and accurate reflection of its times, it is certainly worth a revival.

When “A Thousand Clowns” hit Broadway in 1962, John F. Kennedy still had a year to live, it would be two years before we’d meet the Beatles, and the Summer of Love was still in short pants, only four years away. And yet, the American celebration of the iconoclast was already well upon us.

Those of us of a certain age and cultural stripe no doubt look back fondly at the memory of Jason Robards as he re-created his Broadway role as Murray Burns in the 1965 movie version. How we cheered this flame-keeper of eternal unemployment and adolescence, and how we longed to identify with his wisecracking slacker of an anti-hero who, for us, appeared to send out the first clarion call to nonconformity.

But, with this second look that MCT so graciously provides, Gardner’s forty-plus-year-old play actually seems more like a paean to conformity than anything else. This is a coming-of-age story of a delusional, middle-aged man, and what may have seemed fresh and edgy in 1962 now seems more like a toothless old dog that’s been sleeping on the porch too long.

Still, how we loved that old dog. And we can’t help but smile when he tries to wag his tail.

The play’s story-line is as follows: Twelve-year-old Nick (played by Drake High School freshman Nick Daunt) lives with his Uncle Murray (Benjamin Colteaux ), a Dickensian Mr. Micawber-like character (“Something will turn up!”) who keeps hoping something won't turn up. Fed up with the rat race, Murray has quit his job as head writer of TV's popular “Chuckles the Chipmunk Show” and has retreated to his cluttered Manhattan apartment, where he carries on a mildly anarchistic existence with the precocious young Nick.

Though every bit like a father and son vaudeville team, Murray has never gotten around to legally adopting the boy, which has caught the attention of two social workers, Sandra (Jennifer Winter) and Albert (Justin Wagle). Where Albert is appalled by Murray's irreverence, Sandra is entranced by the somewhat belligerent free-spirit, and, with the aid of both Arnold Burns, Murray’s agent-brother, and young Nick, Sandra sets about to domesticate Murray and convince him to go back to work. Indeed, all around our poor anti-hero appear to be co-conspirators in the “Taming of the Jew.”

At first, Colteaux (who also produced) seems miscast in the role of Murray, given his serious and, at times, woeful look. But he soon warms to the task, revealing an aptitude for whimsy and for taking command of the stage, an aptitude heretofore missing in his previous, stuffed-shirted roles. If Colteaux does not quite capture the deep-seated eccentricity of Murray, he does manage to convey Murray’s slyness. This is no doubt due, in part, to the able direction of Billie Cox, who temporarily stepped in while creative director Artie Gilbert (relaxed and smiling in the audience at Friday’s opener) happily sits this one out.

Young Daunt does an admirable turn as Nick. Looking like a cross between Harry Potter and a shoe-in for the title role of “Honey, I Shrunk Eward R. Herriman,” what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in charm. He brings a winning scrappiness to Nick that is refreshing, instead of the usual poker-faced, middle-aged kid.

As Sandra, Winter is sensational. Really first-rate. An award-winning dancer with Portland and San Francisco-based companies, she brings her entire body to bear with Sandra. She also brings a kind of playful grace – and, at times, throaty sexuality – to the otherwise tightly-pinned child psychologist. Never stealing a scene from Murray, which is as it should be, she nevertheless brightens every scene she’s in.

In fact, the cast as a whole are a pleasing lot. There’s not a clunker in the bunch, with each finding at least one interesting nuance to each role. Waggle’s Albert could easily have been played as a two-dimensional prig, but that’s not the way Gardner wrote it, and actor Waggle rises to the occasion, successfully conveying Albert’s doleful self-awareness, wittily understating both his annoyance and grudging admiration for Murray’s spontaneity.

The same goes for Howell’s Arnold Burns, who does a sensitive, layered turn as Murray’s less colorful brother. Ditto the versatile Stephen Dietz, who does a lively freak show as the neurotic Leo (a.k.a. “Chuckles the Chipmunk”), a kiddie-show host who hates himself almost as much as he hates kids.

If anything is missing from this production it is the right sort of pacing, but that may improve as the run goes on. They misspelled the playwright’s name on the program -- but that’s just nit picking. The Belrose was a good choice for this play; its intimate, crowded quarters is somehow well suited to Murray’s crowded apartment, and it is a vast improvement over MCT’s last venue. The set was unremarkable, and could do with more of Murray’s flair.

In all, “A Thousand Clowns” makes for a lively, entertaining evening of theater that, for the most part, has stood the test of time. In fact, in a way, with MCT’s darker emphasis on Murray’s inevitable compromise, it is, once again, a play well suited to the times.

Then again, maybe it was like that all along. Maybe we just see it differently now.

(Contact Mark Langton at

Artie Gilbert (1945-2006)