All Things Entertaining and Cultural
From his infancy, his primary lessons, and primary mission, was to get yuks from audiences attending vaudeville show, the Ziegfeld Follies and Broadway comedies. He also had some iconic moments as the Mad Hatter in a movie version of “Alice in Wonderland,” a role that gets him stopped on the streets years after its release.
Chick doesn’t do set-ups and punch lines. He disdains them. They, he explains, are the work comedians like Jack Benny and Bob Hope. He is a comic, an actor, who uses shtick, signature vocal tricks, a repertoire of facial expressions, and the clown’s pathos in the manner of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the comic after whom playwright Bruce Graham models Chick in his new play, “Funnyman,” Bert Lahr.
Graham does not relegate Mr. Benny and Mr. Hope to the hack heap. He is a movie buff, and he would know they both contributed to American entertainment history in significant ways. Chick is the one who scorns them. He sees himself as an artist while Jack and Bob are mere performers.
He’s entitled to his opinion. As Graham writes the story, Chick paid his dues and became not only a pro, but a perfectionist because of it. Not getting a laugh is a crime in his world, one punishable by a lacing from one of his vaudeville parents who depended on Chick’s knack for cracking up any house for their livelihood. Getting too little a laugh, a titter when guffaws are expected, is as unacceptable. In a telling moment, just as the lights are going down on the final moments of Matt Pfeiffer’s excellent production of Graham’s excellent play, you see the also excellent Carl N. Wallnau as Chick staring at a 40 oz. tin can, label gone, ribs and grooves exposed, and working on a bit that didn’t work to his total satisfaction in an avant garde he’s doing in his off-Broadway debut.
Chick relies on that can, and the business he does with it, to stimulate a tsunami of chuckles from his audience. He is playing a man alone in a kitchen who has given only this can as his meal for an evening. His character has the can but no can opener. Wallnau, as Chick, shakes the can to see if its contents is more liquid or solid. He bangs it on counter. He pounds on his lid. In an inspired move, he rubs it against a cheese grater he finds in a drawer where the missing can opener should be. He is the throes of comic desperation, his character dying more of appetite fulfillment than actual hunger, and in his torture over his ridiculous situation, he elicits belly laughs.
Or proposes to. In Pfeiffer’s production, Wallnau’s first bit with the can, in a sequence in which Chick is sketchily showing a director the business he worked out for the missing-opener dilemma, the shtick needs further work. Chick’s ideas sound better than they play. We need to see his genius in making a suggestion that hits comedic gold right off the bat.
Saying that something that is already good could be better in Pfeiffer’s staging is the extent of my cavils. I was absorbed my “Funnyman” and can overlook a bit or two that needs to be worked out beyond where process took Pfeiffer and his cast on opening night.
Each of the three of four instances that require more thought involved Wallnau’s delivery as Chick.
Before I continue, I want to emphasize what a wonderful job Wallnau is doing with this part. The few improvable things I am going to mention in no way diminish or downgrade his overall performance as Chick and the variety he wrings from it. Critics worry that one sentence, supplied only in the name of complete reporting, will become the lasting idea in a review or be the point, the minor point, that carries the whole day.
Wallnau is superb as Chick, and Pfeiffer had built something grand from Graham’s script. Comedy, as Graham, Wallnau, and Pfeiffer, not to mention Messrs. Keaton, Lloyd, Benny, Hope, and Lahr, is complex. The initial bit in which Chick is showing the director his intentions for the can, is underdone and needs to be more fully conceived, so we can see how Chick earns his laughs and realize that he is the master Graham and his characters say he is. Conversely, some other material is too big, possibly because of the proximity of the Arcadia stage at the Arden to the audience. When Wallnau is demonstrating Chick’s signature line delivery, his extended, staccato approach is too broad to stay popular for long. It’s annoying. It’s akin to listening to Gilbert Gottfried (who is getting a nice send-up from Tony Braithwaite in Act II’s “On the Road Again”) or Al Gore talking for more than three minutes. Those voices will kill you, and the clown voice Wallnau uses to show how Chick spoke his dialogue, as opposed to Benny or Hope, would tag him as dead or arrival in any theater or movie screen.
Finding that special voice, that unique delivery, has to be a yeoman task, but Pfeiffer and Wallnau have to do more experimenting to find a better one. No one would believe Chick could build a career on such irritation.
Also too big is Chick’s image in a couple of filmed commercials he appears in to promote an antacid. The camera was too close and picks up too much of Chick’s makeup. I’m not talking about the goop used to simulate messily eaten chocolate around Chick’s mouth, or the clownlike effects of bushy eyebrows. You can see the foundation makeup all actors wear. The commercials make their point in terms of “Funnyman,” but they don’t meet a standard that would be in place among advertising agencies in 1959, when “Funnyman” is set.
What does work, and beautifully, are the part of the commercial, and its filming, that establish critical elements in “Funnyman.”
Chick is asked to do his signature line — “Wow-ZAH!” — and Wallnau shows why people who see Chick repeat his “Wow-ZAH!’ wherever he goes.
Among Graham’s character points are Chick’s professionalism, his perfectionism, and his penchant for keeping a contract sacrosanct. All of these are illustrated wonderfully in Graham’s opening scene in which Chick argues with a less-than-respectful director about limiting the Wow-Zah’s to one, as agreed; Milt, his agent, steps into to calm the situation and keep Chick earning healthy residuals that help feed both of them; and you realize Chick is not a lighthearted or joking man away from a stage.
He’s the opposite. He’s serious to the point of being dour, or even depressed. Graham is not writing about a person who tosses off a quip a minute, or who sees a world where mortals are fools and need their folly exposed in witty observations. He’s showing us a man whose comedy is professional, period. Chick Sherman is paid to make people laugh, and he has the talent and technique to earn every dollar of any fee or salary. He becomes the ultimate comedian on stage, or even en route to his reserved table at Lindy’s, a great Broadway café of the ’50s, when fans and children ask for or trade Wow-ZAHs, but out of the public eye, he retreats to quiet privacy reading Variety or listening to Yankees games with the volume so low, you can barely hear Mel Allen.
From Archie Rice in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” to Smokey Robinson in “Tracks of My Tears” or “Tears of a Clown,” the story of the comedian who’s sad or dejected when no one’s watching is well chronicled. Graham does not copy or glom on to that plot line. He adds to it and enhances it.
“Funnyman” is never a cliché or another of a generic kind. It’s a deep portrait of a man who has reasons for wanting to be flawless on stage and even more poignant reasons for shunning the world and its demands when the lights go down and the makeup comes off.
Graham elicits pathos for Chick, but never sinks to making him pathetic, as Chick’s talks about working the vaudeville circuit with his parents and tells about being beaten when he performed under par in terms of getting laughs, or how, when he broke his collar bone in a bit in which his father threw him across the stage, his mother said he had to go on injured and quipped the father will toss him underhanded.
The value of a laugh goes beyond entertaining the crowd to the fullest effect. An audience’s response, and therefore a theater booker’s response, meant continued work and less physical abuse. Trial and costly error taught Chick how to win, hold, and convulse a crowd, and he never forgot his ability to amuse or the pain it spared him to do it masterfully.
As with anything, practice made perfect. To Chick, eliciting laughs was a matter of business.
Let’s go back to that closing bit with the can. In talking to Kathy Deitch as she prepared for “The Three Maries,” she mentioned how backstage during rehearsals for “Wicked,” Kristin Chenoweth would work for hours with props, Glinda’s batons among them, until she found a bit that would dazzle without looking out of character. Deitch said Chenoweth showed her the value of grinding and grinding until you’d done all you could to get the most from what you were given. Joan Benny, Jack’s daughter, and Mary Livingstone’s, wrote in “Sunday Nights at Seven,” that her father and his writers, her mother sometimes among them, would not sit around and josh or behave in any rollicking way that set the writers’ room into an uproar. They sat in contemplation, seriously discussing potential comic situations for Jack, Mary, Rochester, Don, Dennis, and guests and nodding in approval or matter-of-factly saying, “That works” or “I like that, write that down” when a key line or idea struck. Even Jack’s famous, “Give me a minute. I’m thinking.” derived from that methodical, businesslike process.
Bruce Graham captures that in Chick Sherman. When Chick likes a joke or is, as rarely happens, tickled by something somebody says or does, he doesn’t laugh or even smile. He calmly says, “That’s funny,” and that’s that.
And Chick has a life offstage, a life that is the crux of “Funnyman.” He had his episodes with his parents, accepted when a child but traumatic to the adult. He had a marriage that disappointed him. He has a daughter, Katherine, who at age 24 in “Funnyman,” wants to know more about her mother, particularly her mother’s death, also at 24, and is intent on becoming truly acquainted with the father who sent her to boarding schools and an out-of-town college and didn’t even cancel a show to come to her bedside when she was in an emergency room.
Graham weaves the segments of his story, which includes Katherine’s relationship with a co-worker in the administrative offices of Carnegie Hall, with great skill. Philadelphians have seen all of Graham’s work since the Philadelphia Festival for New Plays produced his “Burkie” in 1984. The prolific playwright has contributed to almost every regional season since then. Having seen most of his opus, I would judge “Funnyman” to be his finest and most accomplished work. Yes, even with “Coyote on a Fence,” “Minor Demons,” and “Stella and Lou” in the running.
“Funnyman” in ways represents a coalescence of Graham’s traits as a writer. Every character, even the ones of whim he’s making fun, such as the fatuous off-Broadway director played by Charlie DelMarcelle, has some heart and makes a point that illuminates something going on in Graham’s play or the period about which he’s writing. He has his characters make keen observations about things happening around them. Given that he has Chick comment substantially on matters involving comedy, showmanship, and the details of his life, he takes this observational role away from his lead and gives it to Katherine’s swain and Carnegie Hall colleague, Nathan, played by Brian Cowden. Mostly, Graham strives to get past the populist, the politically correct, and the commonly accepted to the reality of a matter and all that surrounds it. It has set-up jokes that don’t get in the way of the more serious matters Graham is exploring.
“Funnyman” does this deftly. It stays human and accessible without getting full of itself as it tells an engrossing story about a complicated man and gets its attitude and dramatic construction straight.
“Funnyman” doesn’t wow. It does better than that. It impresses. It entertains while giving you a story and characters to think about. It delves into what it means to be famous for one thing that only exists for a special two hours under extraordinary conditions that usually don’t last into decades. It depicts someone whose personal identity is so muted, even he retreats from it and prevents his daughter from honing it on it. Chick even orders his agent, Milt, to withhold information, and documents, from Katherine as she so assiduously goes looking for her past and desires so much to know more about her parents, especially the one she’s living with as an adult now that she’s working in New York (which Chick never wants to leave, being one of those people who get the bends if they venture south of 40th Street).
Graham has written a comedy that provides room for thought and shows you a complete world. Even some resolving plot twists play cleanly and uncontrived.
Matt Pfeiffer has found the core of Graham’s work. He maintains a comic tone, but he paces “Funnyman” with the rhythm of a drama and gives the substance of Chick’s character its due, The atmosphere on the Arcadia stage becomes intense and poignant when Graham’s text calls for it. Pfeiffer is to be congratulated for finding the right balance between the openly comic, such as the scenes between DelMarcelle’s intellectual director and the modern playwright portrayed by Keith Conallen, and sequences with emotional depth, character revelation, and well-observed insight.
The success of “Funnyman” is shared by its splendid cast, led by Wallnau, who finds many levels in Chick and displays all of them, to the marvelously low-key performance by Kenny Morris as Milt, the contrasting oversized turn by Conallen as a Williamsesque playwright with all of Tennessee’s flamboyance and charm, and the condescending superiority DelMarcelle exudes as the full-of-himself stage director.
To double back, and give some plot. Chick, after decades as a Broadway headliner, has run out of parts. “Hellzapoppin,” and other variety show contrivances have given way to Williams, Miller, and Inge, and Beckett and Ionesco about to make their way to Manhattan shores.
Victor La Plant’s play, “In Lucy’s Kitchen,” sounds as if it’s in the Beckett mode, but both Chick and La Plant see it as straightforward piece and not as the absurdist tome DelMarcelle’s director envisions.
“In Lucy’s Kitchen” requires Chick to be farcical, and even silly, in a first section that contains opportunities for laughs and heartbreaking in later scenes when his character confronts the limitations and deprivations Lucy represents. Graham has a good time satirizing aspects of ’50s off-Broadway while showing appreciation for the honest work Beckett, Ionesco, and others did when pseudo-intellectuals let them be. Chick’s appearance in “In Lucy’s Kitchen” parallels Bert Lahr’s foray into “Waiting for Godot,” a play that transformed his career. The play becomes a challenge, actually an acid test for Chick and his mettle as an entertainer.
“Funnyman” is more than any one of its parts. Graham deals with several matters and situations fully while connecting them deftly. From program notes, I see Bruce talks about the changes in the theater from vaudeville to absurdism, especially for a specialist like Chick. That theme occupies about one fifth of “Funnyman.” to Graham’s credit, he approaches a lot of subjects and ideas, from a comprehensive portrait of a man to the search for identity from his daughter. All blends felicitously to make “Funnyman’ Graham’s masterpiece to date.
Carl N. Wallnau embodies Chick’s crankiness and desire to be left alone. Chick continues to work although he is secure financially, but the work is less and less to his satisfaction, and he prefers solitude to anything other than a ready audience anyhow.
Within the sharpness by which Wallnau expresses Chick’s brittle intolerance for anything that isn’t straightforward business or the New York Yankees, Wallnau also shows the professional exercising his creative genius and a man who would like to open up to the one person closest to him and can’t.
Wallnau’s portrayal is as complete as Graham’s composition of the character. He adds depth to a production Pfeiffer has already endowed with intensity. He gets the flintiness Chick’s being while conveying the pain and hard work that got to a point when Wow-ZAH could identify him to millions.
Kenny Morris is subtly brilliant as Milt Karp. He never appears to be acting. It’s like Milt just happened upon the Arden stage and did what he had to do to move Graham’s play forward. His posture and line readings are natural. His Milt takes obvious delight in saying anything he has to, true or not, to get a project moving in a way that suits him. There’s much natural humanity in his performance. Even the irony Morris gives Graham’s raisonneur plays in a way that fits Milt like a glove.
Emilie Krause grows in intensity as “Funnyman” proceeds. At first, Katherine seems like a stock nudge including to give “Fuunyman” some plot variation, but you take to the feistiness and tenacity Krause gives her.
Katherine is not only on a mission to find out more about her mother, a dancer Chick wed in his youth that never had the success Chick did. She wants to be a woman with a career, and she wants her father to acknowledge that chocie as a legitimate option. Katherine’s modernity, especially as she dates Cowden’s Nathan, is as much as source of contention among father and daughter as Chick’s secrecy is.
Krause shows the various sides of Katherine while mostly maintaining a no-nonsense approach to everything that character does, including romance.
Keith Conallen provides smart comic relief as the Louisiana playwright who became a sensation in Europe for avant garde works originally written in French, which Conallen has his character, Victor, speak abominably.
Fun and energy come to the stage whenever Conallen does. He is shameless in his adopting of Williams-Capote-type queeniness and has both authors’ gift for candor and self-expression when asked to explain something in his play or comment on a general matter.
Charlie DelMarcelle gives the right nuances to the off-Broadway director, Matthew Baroni, so that he comes off as ordinarily straightforward while harboring feelings of superiority about Chick, who is Victor’s and not his choice for “In Lucy’s Kitchen,” and Victor.
DelMarcelle also gives Baroni the air of a man on the rise, one who is serious about presenting art but more serious about attaining a reputation for being an innovator and a genius. His self-interest peeks through every fiber of DelMarcelle’s being, even when Baroni is being serious about the play.
A couple of the names Graham gives his characters ring as jokes, Karp for instance for Milt, but the best is Baroni. Say it with a comic Japanese accent, and you’ll see what I mean. I have a feeling Graham is commenting on most directors with this bit of wordplay.
Brian Cowden plays Nathan Wise, a man who spends most of his workday trying to get fired, with a nice ease that expresses Nathan’s shrugging attitude towards life and makes him both a good potential partner and appropriate sounding board for Katherine.
Alison Roberts’s costumes are totally on the mark for the period and the people wearing them. I like it that Chick always rehearses in a tie and jacket, as an old hand would in 1959.
Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set is flexibly serviceable. Thom Weaver’s lighting becomes particularly apparent in the theater rehearsal scenes. Jorge Cousineau keeps the Yankee games on the radio at a whisper while creating some good effects that go with Chick’s routines.
P.S. My compulsive soul insists that I mention the Arden program says Bert Lahr received a Tony as Best Actor in a Musical for “Foxy” in 1960, but he won the award in 1964. The 1960 recipient was another comedian doing an auspicious Broadway turn, Jackie Gleason in “Take Me Along.”
“Funnyman” runs through Sunday, March 6 at the Arcadia Stage of the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $50 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org.