A Thousand Clownsby Herb Gardner. Directed by Kyle Fabel.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Everybody accepts an apology. It’s not negotiable."
CJ Wilson & Rachel Bay Jones; photo: Chris Reis
If you are a truly free spirit you can live on the air in the airshaft, glean light from the soft glow behind the dirty windows across that air-space and get satisfaction from lecturing your unseen and unknown neighbors on the low-class quality of their garbage. You can sleep with a different girl every night while your unofficial ward, your twelve-year old nephew, sleeps on the couch of the widow upstairs. You can look for a job in a three-day old newspaper and spend your afternoons at the movies. And, most importantly, you can celebrate Irving R. Feldman’s birthday as your own special national holiday; Feldman, it just so happens, is your all-time favorite deli supplier.
You can do all these things if your name is Murray Burns, if it’s 1962, and if you live in New York City as envisioned on the stage of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Main Stage on the Festival campus in Stockbridge, MA. In 1962 Murray Burns was played on Broadway by Jason Robards, Jr. and he was a loveable, idiotic scamp who broke into choruses of "Yes Sir, That’s My Baby" at the drop of a hat (though not his own hat which stayed on his head most of the time). In 1965 he transferred this performance to film so it is forever enshrined on celluloid. This time around the role is being undertaken by CJ Wilson. His take is not Robards’ and the difference is palpable. You can taste it, feel it, hear it.
Robards had the good luck to be surrounded by a very talented company in both arenas: Barry Gordon as the kid, William Daniels as the social worker, Gene Saks as the TV kid-show-star and Sandy Dennis on stage and Barbara Harris in the film as the girl in the picture, Sandra Markowitz. Wilson also has a good company around him including Rachel Bay Jones as Sandra, James Barry as Albert, Jordan Gelber as Leo and, most especially, Russell Posner as Nick.
The show has enjoyed two New York revivals with Judd Hirsch in the first one and Tom Selleck in the second. Neither of them had the Robards charm, however. In 1982 Tony Roberts pulled the piece together and completely charmed Berkshire audiences at this same theater. Wilson has a harder time with charm. His performance is the darkest I’ve seen of this role and Murray’s sense of whimsy becomes a more genuine anger at the world. His feelings about, and for, his nephew are much harder to track and chart this time around. We have to work a bit too hard to sympathize with the loser Murray has become in this production. Time can take a heavy toll on a character whom it was always difficult to support and here time has weighed in and found him seriously wanting. Wilson ultimately pulls us to his side but it is a hard road for him to traverse in order to make his Murray achieve a welcome and well-deserved sense of happiness. The desperation that was always a part of the role has now become the foremost fragment of this highly fragmented personality.
Sandra is played with an almost classically Barbara Harris sensitivity by Rachel Bay Jones. Jones has chosen a very difficult to understand New York accent and her high-pitched voice adds to the difficulty. Nonetheless her emotional shifts and her delectable sense of the ridiculous holds ground and she delivers an absolutely delicious performance as the PhD with too much heart. Jones makes Sandra into the girl every boy wants and fears at the same time, a giving personality with a take-hold attitude. In less than 24 hours her Sandra is not only making changes in Murray, but she is on a short road to totalitarianism. Jones is very funny and very touching as well playing the vicissitudes of Miss Doctor Markowitz.
Jordan Gelber is annoying as all get-out in the role of Leo Herman, AKA television’s own giant chipmunk. Andrew Polk makes a fine Arnold Burns, Murray’s brother who provides fruit and emotional sustenance and could even provide a job if Murray were only not Murray.
James Barry is superb as the fussy and manic Albert Amundson, representative of Child Services who loses his grip on his young assistant, Sandra, and loses in the battle of the sexes as well. Barry, whose work on these stages is generally dark and heavy, takes his best shot at funny and quirky and uses all of his considerable talents to make it work out. He does it very well indeed.
The real star of this production is Russell Posner as Nick Burns, the kid in the story. A genius, Nick has the mind and the verbal delivery of a forty-year-old man but the body, face and voice of a pre-pubescent kid. Posner is able to deliver perfectly on the promise of this role delivering an excellent and refined performance that becomes moving and emotional as needed, intellectual and superior when left unchecked. It couldn’t be a better combination and the actor has it all in spades.
The production looks good with sets by Randall Parsons, costumes by Olivera Gajic and lights by Daniel Kotlowitz. J Hagenbuckle’s sound design should work fine, but it needs to be rehearsed a bit more.
Overall this is a more dramatic, less accessible edition of "A Thousand Clowns" due to the interpretation of Murray and perhaps the vision of director Kyle Fabel, but in general this is an entertainment that delivers entertainment. If the Berkshire evenings remain cool this play will warm you up, eventually. If it gets too hot, this play can provide a light breeze in the night. Either way, the show is guaranteed to intrigue you if you don’t know it and engage your mind if you do know it. You really can’t lose either way.
James Barry; photo: Chris Reis
Russell Posner, Wilson & Jones; photo: Chris Reis
A Thousand Clowns plays through July 28 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Stockbridge Campus at the corner of Routes 7 and 102. Information and tickets can be obtained at their website, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org or by phone at 413-298-5576.