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A Thousand Clowns — Montgomery Theater

untitled (57) The Montgomery Theater production of “A Thousand Clowns” settled two nagging curiosities, and both to gratifying satisfaction.

I have always been interested in whether the comedies produced on Broadway so prolifically  in the late 1950s and 1960s would hold up in a modern staging. I call these pieces Harvey Spiegelgass plays, a elision composed from the names of two of the main writers of the genre, and I’ve wanted to see if they seem dated, flimsy, or corny given that they were primarily situation comedies the quality of which was surpassed by television shows like “Maude,” “All in the Family,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the ’70s. From examples I saw in summer stock in the ’70s, I was not impressed by the Spiegelgass canon. It seemed to revolve around cheap sentiment and topics that seemed too light for exploration, at least to a young person in the era of the Vietnam War and gasoline shortages. Lines and gags seemed more important than plot or character development, laughs being the main payoff.

“A Thousand Clowns” is not dated, flimsy, or corny. It has some cracks in the plaster. A sensibility here or there may be outmoded. Characters may be only so deep and more functionary than dimensionally human, but it deals with a matter that may be even more prevalent today, when minding others people’s business and intervention seems more common and intrusive than in 1962, the year Herb Gardner wrote it, the fitness of a particular adult to raise and be the guardian for a child.

I remembered liking the 1965 film of “A Thousand Clowns” a lot. The Montgomery Theater production also made me a fan of the play. Creaks were occasional but didn’t matter much because Gardner’s joke lines were crisp and to the point, and because the humanity of the play and the genuine feeling Will Dennis,  Xander Dake, and Jessica Bedford were able to muster in lead roles that were  more than one-note.

My other curiosity was about Jessica Bedford. To date, I’d seen her primarily as a professional Bennet sister, Jane to be precise, in more than one “Pride and Prejudice.” Bedford always acquitted herself well and played Jane as the sensible but diplomatic woman she is, but she was never given a chance to show mettle as an actress. Jane is called upon to smile, look lovely, and be more of a sounding board to Elizabeth than a full-fledged character.

In “A Thousand Clowns,” Bedford shows her range and versatility. Her part, Sandra Markowitz, a psychologist working in team with a social worker for New York’s child welfare agency, may not always seem consistent — Gardner throws in traits that don’t seem totally right for Sandy and ladles on some shtick. — but Bedford takes the sum of Sandy’s parts and makes them into a whole using her talent and winning personality as an actress. Not only did she break out of the “For Austen Only” mold, but she demonstrated her skill at moving from the comic to the serious and combining physicality and facial expressions, from wry to angry, with smart line readings to create a complete and believable character despite obstacles Gardner put in her way.

“A Thousand Clowns” harkens back to a simpler, more direct era of playwriting, when basic story, zingers, and poignant lines were the mark of craft, and complexity of theme, ambiguity, and stylization were elements of the future.

It centers on Murray Burns, a writer who knows shlock from quality and who feels mired by writing stunts and gags for a daily morning kid’s show that features a comedian who dresses like a chipmunk and leads children in games and marches while imparting tips for getting along with each other and playing nicely. Tony Braithwaite is wonderful as this character, Leo  Herman, when we see him, sans chipmunk drag, late in Gardner’s second act.

Murray is aware that writing children’s material earns him a good living and pays for his life, but the inanity of his scripts, and the neurotic demands of Braithwaite’s character, get to him, and he walks off the set one day, refusing to return, even when Leo comes personally to see him and offer to restore his job.

We meet Murray when he is six-months unemployed, in arrears with his bills, including his rent for an apartment over a Chinese restaurant, and in trouble with the child welfare folks. Murray is the guardian for his nephew, left with him by a sister more irresponsible than he is, a woman who took off when her son was three and is still on the road. During the period he worked and after, Murray has received and ignored letters from Child Welfare and now stands to lose custody of the boy, who is called Nick but takes on several names, if he can’t comply with sensible, if insensitive, conditions the welfare folks set. Having a job is one of those conditions.

Gardner’s scripts begs a big issue in terms of Nick’s custody. Murray has an older brother, Arnold, who has a steady, well-paying job as a talent agent, a home in the New York suburbs, and a wife and children he supports with ease. Even if government forcibly takes Nick from Murray, the boy seems to have the option of going to a more stable home with his other uncle, also his mother’s brother. To create tension, Gardner makes Nick’s alternative to living with Murray consignment to foster care. Avoiding an obvious solution to a core dilemma is a problem with “A Thousand Clowns,” but as the saying goes, if every conflict or situation was handled logically or neatly, there would be no play.

Meanwhile, you see how well Murray and Nick, or whatever the boy, unnamed at birth,  calls himself that day get along. The bond is strong, especially as played by the realistic Will Dennis and the remarkable Xander Dake.

Far from being maladjusted, as Murray is diagnosed to be, Nick has learned to appreciate his uncle’s esprit and loves to make journeys to various spots in New York, enjoys listening to music that sounds like the background score from a Woody Allen movie, and plays a mean ukulele.

Nick has lived with an iconoclast who wants his life to be bright and filled with fun. Gardner’s title comes from Murray’s image of an ideal life being like a small car pulling up and delivering 1,000 clowns, the madcap kind, armed with balloons, toys, and tricks to entertain for hours, perhaps a lifetime.

Murray doesn’t want his life to be a circus as much as series of lively activities that stimulate and provide fun. An excursion to the top of the Empire State Building or a day in the park will suffice. The point is not to be stuck doing things you find boring or meaningless for the sake of making a living or having a conventional, approvable existence.

Murray may go a bit too far in the irresponsibility department. Reality, as it often will, encroaches, by making his income and ability to take care of a minor, even one who is 12 going on 40, an issue.

The audience, while realizing Murray’s charm and seeing how much he and Nick love each other as people and companions, knows Murray is at fault. Gardner’s point is whether someone who doesn’t fit society’s mold as Father of the Year, and would teach a kid about Bix Beiderbecke, Groucho Marx, and Lou Gehrig as well as George Washington or Thomas Edison, is a worthy guardian. Then again, Nick being so capable, sharp, and multi-faceted sways the audience toward Murray’s side in spite of his shortcomings.

The case against Murray looks cut-and-dried, but Gardner throws a slight plot curve when the social workers arrive. Of course, they are initially officious, even when Murray refuses to take them seriously and answers their questions with comic dodges, makes fun of their dour demeanors, and launches into a series of antics to disrupt proceedings.

The child welfare folks are a neat boy-girl pair. Neither clearly supervises the other, so they have internal squabbles that Murray eggs on. The man, Albert, is your standard sitcom prig who insists on rules, spouts laws, and is unwilling to look at the totality of a situation. The woman, Sandy, is Gardner’s wild card. She is just out of graduate school, complete with doctorate in child psychology, and she is more interested in entire pictures than bald facts.

Albert and Sandy, who have an after-work relationship brewing, have tiffs about how to proceed. Albert wants things by the book. Sandy is inclined to be more modern and judge matters by a variety of standards. She understands Murray and responds to his eccentricity. She also notices Nick is polite, efficient, clean, well-fed, including with fruit his Uncle Arnold brings every morning, and above average intelligence.

Two plot maneuvers are set on track, disagreement between the professionals, and a possible romantic interest between Sandy and Murray.

It all makes for interesting watching. Homes are broken up every day for specious, officious reasons (as well as for good, sound ones), and people who don’t live according to expectation remain suspicious to those who meticulously follow conventional patterns. The situation in “A Thousand Clowns” can and does occur today, possibly without a Sandy to leaven governmental imposition.

Gardner has written strong piece about people. “A Thousand Clowns” deserves revival, and if Gardner was alive to do it, some mild updating, more to remove anachronisms than to change the tone, pace, or story of his script.

Tony Braithwaite’s production for Montgomery emphasizes the strength of Gardner’s work, extracting its humanity while finding its comedy and opportunities for zaniness.

Braithwaite has experienced a growth spurt in terms of his handling of comedy this season. Always deft as putting across a joke or exploiting the physicality in a bit, Braithwaite has added finesse to his repertory. His work as actor in “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Hotel Suite” shows he doesn’t work as hard to sell a joke as to build a realistic character whose speech and reactions are funny. He has moved his comic game, always astute, to a higher level, a more artistic level, and he brings the sensibility I’ve seen in his recent performances to the direction of “A Thousand Clowns.”

Yes, there’s shtick. Gardner provides it, and it must be played. But the comedy comes from within the characters, not just from being cued on a page of a script. When Dennis and Dake launch into a fine ukulele-accompanied duet of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” the Montgomery lights up, not because Gardner has thrown in a set piece, but because Dennis and Dake seal the bond between Murray and Nick. If they can perform at so high a level, get so much joy out of doing their routine, and make such an impression on their willing audience, Sandy, they are obviously a pair that belongs together, and Murray is obviously a man who pays attention and teaches things to his nephew. The bit cements the audience’s affection for Murray and Nick and puts it squarely on the side of them staying together, no matter how logical and legally air-tight Child Welfare’s case is.

All other bits Gardner devises to show Murray’s élan fit in well with the character and the play, even his irritating habit of putting on a pith helmet, opening his window, and screaming comic orders to his neighbors.

Braithwaite enhances Gardner’s play by having his actors respond realistically, even Murray, whose idea of reality includes being flippant and distracting people from their mature tasks. “A Thousand Clowns” entertains and gives you reason to root for its leads to prevail. Gardner finagles the ending a bit, but such sudden moves are expected from a ’60s comedy, and Braithwaite makes the quickness of Gardner’s solution fit into his bid or keep things as steady as possible.

Will Dennis has “wise guy” stamped all over him. His compact frame, always tensed to strike out on some mischievous or comic gambit, the eye, always twinkling in readiness to go in for a brat-like kill, and his face in a constant smile that shows disdain for the conventional around him show Murray is poised for any challenge. Say something, ask something, and he has a smart retort. As I said, a wise guy.

Dennis seems to revel in playing a rebel. He resembles Peter Falk a bit and has that actor’s manner of staring at other characters in a studying way, as if sizing them up as he waits to unleash his next riposte.

Dennis makes Murray impervious to attack, though at times, especially with Sandy and Arnold, he may need to show some recognition or acknowledgement they have a point. Also, the freedom Murray basks in since leaving the chipmunk show, has led to him being a bit unfastidious. In this production, that includes leaving his shirt-tail untucked, something that is common today but isn’t quite right for 1962.

Xander Dake is every bit the adult in child’s clothing Nick must be. In addition to the poise of a seasoned pro. Dake, who must be around the age, 12, Nick is, not only has a clear voice that projects, but he gives witty intonation to his lines. He exudes Nick’s smartness and shows Nick’s love for Murray in the exaggerated manners he puts on when playing host to the social workers and to Leo Herman. He also shows his affection and camaraderie in the way he looks at Dennis, sometimes conspiratorially, something with the attitude of “Oh,  brother!,” but always with adoration.

Dake has musical talents. He is a great partner to Dennis in the “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” sequence and handles a ukulele as if he was born with it in his mitts. The clear speaking voice translates to a pure and effortless singing voice, the treble of which shows signs of changing.

One point about Nick that has more to do with Herb Gardner than Xander Dake. Murray keeps Nick out of school so he’ll be present to support him when the social workers come. Neither social worker, in spite of their suspicions when they first enter the Burns apartment, mentions that Xander is missing a school day. I found that odd.

Jessica Bedford, as mentioned previously, is called on to display a variety of moods, attitudes, and stances, some of which contradict others.

She begins as the professional representative of the Child Welfare Board, coolly dressed in her light turquoise suit and ready for meaningful discussion, her brief case open and files prepared to build a case against Murray and rescue Nick from his wanton libertine ways.

Gardner means Sandy to be more modern. Her education and perception, superior to her partner, Albert’s, kicks in, and Sandy sees a bigger picture, one she believes requires the investigation and conversation to go a different way. Sandy realizes Murray’s charm and, more importantly, Nick’s happiness. Bedford conveys this well.

She also conveys that Sandy is a freer spirit than her training or her job indicate. She begins to admire the way Murray thinks and conducts his life. She sees several ways she can help and soon is of the mind that she prefers to help Murray thwart the child welfare authorities, retain custody of Nick, and regain some semblance of adult responsibility.

Doing so isn’t that easy, and in the course of “A Thousand Clowns,” Bedford is called upon to do everything from flirt openly to having a mild breakdown.

She does all convincingly, which is to her credit, because Gardner does not always keep Sandy’s behavior or decisions logical. His plotting for her shows signs of writing a comedy and thinking of business instead of concentrating solely on character.

The sex scenes in “A Thousand Clowns” were probably bold for 1962. They seem routine today. Luckily, neither Gardner nor Braithwaite makes them coy. They work in their own terms.

Sandy’s breakdown has to do with her realizing that she has done all the right things in her life but that she has a more adventurous, rebellious side and with her giving up so much, i.e. her job and her pride, to help Murray before figuring out Murray may be beyond help. This is a difficult scene, and Bedford plays it so that Gardner’s comic intentions register while you also have concern for Sandy and this critical moment of recognition in her life.

Tony Braithwaite brings out the neurosis and ego of Leo while also indicating his self-knowledge and the businessman who realizes, trouble or not, Murray is a man he needs on his team.

Braithwaite gives a master class in timing and in personality swings. He captures the childish man who craves attention, even from children, and the successful entertainer who knows full well what his career is and has been and wants it to continue as is. Gardner manages a nice spoof on comedians, you know the ones who want to negate their clowning and “give back,” by having Leo talk of his ideal show, in which he inculcates children with morals and broaches poignant subjects, all, of course, while dressing as a chipmunk.

Andy Shaw bristles at the slights to his dignity as Albert, the social worker who goes by the book but hints he is less anal in his personal life. Howie Brown does a fine three-button job as Arnold, the Burns brother who sacrificed some of his high spirit and all of his ambitions.

Rob Napoli designed a serviceably realistic sense, complete with hint of a fire escape and a sense of height. The set transformed well from a bachelor’s nightmare to a thoughtful in the scenes when Sandy renovates Murray’s digs. Mary Ann Swords-Greene got the ’60s costumes right.

“A Thousand Clowns” runs through Sunday, July 13 at the Montgomery Theater, 124 Main Street, in Souderton, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. A 3 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Thursday, June 26.  No show is scheduled for Friday, July 4  Wednesday, July 9. Tickets range from $35 to $24 and can be ordered by calling 610-723-9984 or by going online to www.montgomerytheater,org

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