A Thousand Clowns, now showing at Intiman through June 17, is surprisingly delightful. Of particular note is a one-and-a-half-man ukulele marching band, as well as a masterful pathos/bathos extravaganza from actor Tim Hyland which somehow conflates Mr. Rogers and Fellini: if you don'êt like chipmunks, leave at halftime.
Herb Gardner'ês script, his first work for the stage after a successful run as a comics artist and some writing for television, is dated but replete with tasty zingers: 'êElaine communicates with my brother and myself almost entirely by rumor.'ê Awkward yet engaging — like its main character — the play tells the tale of Murray Burns, a TV scriptwriter who has dropped out of the workforce, unable any longer to tamp down his disgust at the pomposity and conformity of the people around him. His longstanding custody of a precocious nephew is jeopardized both by Murray'ês own condition as an unemployed bachelor and by the nephew'ês dry wit.
Nick Robinson as the nephew deserves special mention. He shows an ease, emotional maturity, and clarity of diction that bode well for his future work. So far he seems to have dodged that awkward self-importance born of too-early accolades, which ruins so many young actors'ê performances. David Pichette as Murray'ês brother (and agent) is drabber than usual. Granted that he is constrained by his role as straight man to his brother'ês imaginative excesses, yet a bit more corked vitality might play better. Matthew Boston'ês Murray has a sharp edge which, while slightly disconcerting, keeps the play from descending into sentimentality. Julie Jesneck throws herself into Murray'ês world with charming abandon, while Bradford Farwell rejects it indignantly.
The performers do their work under a handsome abstraction of the Manhattan windowscape which hangs above the stage. Set designer Nayna Ramey has also perfectly sited a pesky minor second setting, the talent agency: its placement nicely evokes the agency'ês location while eliminating the delay and bustling stagehands required by a set change.
The play is dated, but all plays are dated, be they Shakes, Shaw, or Shawn — dated as in quaint, outmoded, stuffed with ideas and attitudes particular to their era that no longer hold water. All plays are period pieces, too, revealing the prejudices of their time but interesting therefore as bits of aesthetic history. A Thousand Clowns is a product of its era: just before the Aquarian dawn, with social strictures beginning to fracture but still immuring the nonconformist.
Gardner writes about emergent themes of the early 1960s: new sexual permissiveness, the rise of the television industry, Jewish iconoclasm. He is part of a group that includes Woody Allen, Jules Feiffer, and Wally Shawn: self-ironizing pre-baby-boom Jewish artists in Manhattan who made significant contributions to the American imagination in the second half of the 20th century.
Not all plays are timeless, carriers of what somebody called the 'êeternal relevance.'ê So your great-grandchildren are unlikely to see A Thousand Clowns. But you should, and you'êre likely to enjoy it.