A Thousand Clowns - Longacre Theatre - September 21, 2001

On television and film, Tom Selleck displays a subtle self-assurance that really does manage to convey certain aspects of character. Granted, most of the characters he plays seem like most of his other characters, but they never really seemed out of place, and judging solely by his television and film work, it would be difficult to consider him a bad actor.

A Thousand Clowns, however, is another story.

As soon as he steps onstage, only a few moments after the curtain goes up, the trouble starts. Selleck is trying his patented acting style on the stage, but it simply doesn't work. Television subtlety doesn't easily move beyond the stage and into the audience. Using the same vocal timbre throughout the play, and acting from the neck up all the time simply isn't an effective way of creating a character on the stage. These, however, are apparently the only tricks at Selleck's disposal, and they grow old very, very quickly. As Selleck's character, Murray Burns, unemployed, and facing losing custody of his ten year old nephew, Nick (Nicholas King), is almost never offstage, there is nothing but time to ponder every mistake Selleck makes in the role.

That's far from all there is to ponder about this production of A Thousand Clowns, however. Equally ineffective--if only slightly more excusable--is King. His performance recalls every terrible child performance you can think of. Terribly overacted, incredibly affected, and annoying from beginning to end, King, again, grates from the moment the curtain goes up, and never lets go. Robert LuPone, as Murray's brother, Arnold, is sleazy and slimy, but seems much like Zack in A Chorus Line or his character in True West two seasons ago, and not at all like Murray. Bradford Cover and Mark Blum, in smaller supporting roles try very hard, but can't overcome their roadblocks either.

The only cast member who even comes close to getting it right is Barbara Garrick as Sandra, Murray's would-be love interest. She starts off decent, gets worse, and then improves, but with her--unlike so many of the other actors--there is a sense that she is trying to make things work. The show's only genuine and humorous moments come from her hard work. Though she seldom succeeds, and though her vocal delivery, like Selleck's, suffers a sort of sameness that drones like a skipping record after a while, she is far less painful than the others.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Herb Gardner's script. Perhaps, when the show first premiered in 1962, it held some relevance, but most of it is gone now. While not every adult has moved beyond their childhood desires and dreams even in this day and age, they have, I feel, found more constructive ways to deal with it. As a period piece, perhaps there's nothing wrong with A Thousand Clowns... It is a well constructed show, and it is possible to see how an experienced stage actor, such as Jason Robards (the originator of Murray Burns) could make the situations and dialogue come alive. But A Thousand Clowns is unmistakably of another era, and nearly forty years of dumbed-down sitcoms and comic movies has rendered most of its insight about the unemployed obsolete.

Were it not for Allen Moyer's sets, I would be hard pressed to think of much of anything positive about this production... John Rando has done much the same damage here that he did to The Dinner Party last year and Urinetown this season, but not creating staging concepts that live up to the script. Walking through A Thousand Clowns will result in failure, as it did with the other two, though whether it is Rando's direction, or the egregious miscasting of nearly every one of the actors, that causes the production to crash and burn is far too difficult to tell.

I hope that, one day, I have the opportunity to see another production of A Thousand Clowns. Though it is unmistakably dated, I believe that the play, even in this day and age, is salvageable, and I would very much like to see what can be done with it when the right people are hired for the job.

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