If you remember Herb Gardner's 1962 "A Thousand Clowns" as a funny play, it might be best to skip the not very jolly revival starring Judd Hirsch.
There's something rather sweet about a play in which members of the Children's Welfare Board visit the apartment of unemployed TV writer Murray Burns because they're afraid he might be giving his adopted nephew Nick an eccentric upbringing. Nowadays, they would visit because of reports of neglect or even torture.
The psychologist who's part of the team takes a shine to both Burns and the precocious Nick. Her partner (and boyfriend), considerably less charmed, initiates actions to have the boy removed. To save Nick, Burns must resume working for his loathed former boss, a TV children's comic named Chuckles the Clown.
The plot is tenuous; what gave the show its charm was Gardner's abundant humor. Burns, the quintessential New Yorker, is always sounding off, even shouting insults to people in the street. "A Thousand Clowns" was one of several plays in the early '60s celebrating nonconformity, itself a nostalgic term in an era when everyone imagines himself a nonconformist.
As Burns, Hirsch is quite charmless. It's not just that he delivers Gardner's zingers in a monochromatic, unanimated way this might stem from a justifiable interpretation of Burns as a darker figure than he was originally played.
More important, Hirsch never shows us his affection for Nick, the affection that might make him take a job he hates in order to thwart the Child Welfare Board.
Nor does he really make us believe he's fallen in love with the psychologist. Whenthe three are united, it seems less a happy ending than the setup for a sequel in which they will form a dysfunctional family of the future.
It's conceivable that the reason Hirsch can't show much affection for this Nick is simply because Dov Tiefenbach, who plays him, is so marvelous. He has an earnestness that makes everything he does funny without any of the self-consciousness that often makes child actors annoying.
John Procaccino is hilariously insecure as Chuckles and David Margulies captures the desperation of a TV talent agent of the period superbly. Marin Hinkle starts funny as the psychologist but grows increasingly tentative, perhaps because she gets so little back from Hirsch. Jim Fyfe is solid as her partner.
Henry Dunn and Ben Edwards have designed Burns' lair with a canny understanding of the organic way things accumulate in a small New York apartment. The play could still charm but not with such a glum Burns.
Way back in 1962, when dropping out was starting to be more common than dropping in, Herb Gardner's hit comedy "A Thousand Clowns" about a fortyish, lovably whimsical TV writer on "Chuckles the Chipmunk" show, who throws away fame and fortune to become a fortyish, lovably whimsical bum, struck just the right note.
It was credible, acceptable, and because the hero had to pay a price for his nonconformity, the conclusion proved quietly satisfying. For eventually even he has to settle down humorously to the deadly compromised drudgery common to the Broadway audience in its struggle to make enough daily bread to buy Broadway seats.
Brought back to Broadway last night by the Roundabout Theater Company at its Criterion Center Stage Right, the possibly surprising thing is how well "A Thousand Clowns" has worn. Perhaps it's still too puppyishly adorable as well as too tail-waggingly anxious to be liked, yet there is a charm and honesty to it which triumphantly survives.
It is also an extraordinarily funny play with some brilliantly offbeat lines.
Murray Burns - the drop-out specialist with a tendency to crack stupid over the telephone with the recorded weather report, or, at the top of his shout, to harangue his neighbors over the quality of their garbage - is a remarkably consistent smart-ass, smugly convinced his masterly inaction represents hilt-living.
As Gardner's story starts, Murray, our all-American eccentric, is, unless he gets a job, threatened with the confiscation by the Welfare Authorities of his beloved, almost equally offbeat nephew, Nick. Murray squiggles and squirms, then falls in love, and eventually falls in line - at least sort of.
The writing is often snazzily beautiful - such as when Murray's sister, who has run off leaving her infant Nick to his ambiguous mercies, is described as possessing a philosophy of life "somewhat to the left of whoopee" and who communicates to Murray and his brother "almost entirely by rumor."
Scott Ellis, helped by the rumpled room provided by set designer Henry Dunn and Ben Edwards, has staged the play with a brusqueness that, noting the changing times, deliberately understates what could be a cloying cuteness and the actors go along with it.
Although the years have been kind to Judd Hirsch, who plays Murray, no years are that kind, and at 60 he is 20 years older than was Jason Robards when he created the role - and looks it. Nevertheless Hirsch, always a fine actor, turns the part into a warmhearted curmudgeon rather than romantic hero, and it works okay.
David Margulies - in the role of the brother that won Martin Balsam an Oscar in the movie version - proves warm, battered and dignified as a man with "a talent for surrender," Jim Fyfe makes a real character out of the Welfare bureaucrat, "one of the dead people," while John Pacaccino emerges as suitably antic and uncertain as that singularly uncomic comic, Chuckles.
The difficulty of playing the kid, Nick, is to be endearing without crossing that indefinable line and being too endearing, yet 14-year-old Dov Tiefenbach is winning, while Marin Hinkle, breathy-voiced and deliciously ditsy, makes Sandra, the child psychologist from Welfare who become's Murray's love interest, happily credible.
Of course, in just 30 years "A Thousand Clowns" has become a period piece like bell-bottoms and Howdy-Doody! Yet while not quite a classic portrait, it remains at least a classic snapshot of the attitudes of a near-distant past.
Buried in the third act of "A Thousand Clowns," Herb Gardner's 1962 paean to noncomformity, is a line that barely registers in the revival of the play at the Roundabout Theater. But that one sentence, a short and devastating question, provides a key to a listless, strangely elegiac interpretation of what is fondly remembered as a buoyant, madcap comedy.
It comes when Arnold Burns (David Margulies), a conventional, clock-punching urbanite, is lecturing his willfully unconventional brother, Murray (Judd Hirsch), about refusing to accept the realities of being an adult. "What's this game you play gonna be like 10 years from now, without youth?" Arnold asks. Actually, he needn't have bothered. In this staging by the director Scott Ellis, that day seems to have arrived.
This isn't because its star, Mr. Hirsch, who first played the same role in a regional production in 1964, turned 60 last year. One suspects that Judd Hirsch, of the wily, deadpan expression and granite features, looked much the same at 12 as he does today.
But here Mr. Hirsch seems as bone-weary and disaffected as a veteran of too many ugly wars. Even railing against the passionless, gray-souled masses he says he refuses to join, this Murray appears to have given up the game long ago.
The sense of defeat may partly come from the production's having had only five days of rehearsals before beginning previews less than a month ago. Indeed, that this version of "Clowns" is even being performed is a testament to the Roundabout's tenacity.
The production's original director, Gene Saks, and star, Robert Klein, were dismissed in late May, reportedly because the playwright didn't like their interpretation. Shortly after, the show's leading lady, Jane Adams, also departed, to be replaced by Marin Hinkle.
So congratulations to all involved for coming up with an evening in which everyone seems to know his lines and blocking. And even if a door handle came off in Mr. Hirsch's hand during the first press performance, this well-seasoned pro (who has served Mr. Gardner well in Tony-winning performances in "I'm Not Rappaport" and "Conversations With My Father") knew how to make it seem as if this was supposed to happen.
All this, however, doesn't dispel the weight of dead air that hangs over the stage. Because the play itself is clearly showing its age, it needs serious CPR to feel fresh and feisty again. Mr. Gardner's skill with the crackling comeback was already evident in "Clowns," and the production gets its laughs (although it also loses a fair number of them). But helium is a missing element.
"Clowns" was the Broadway debut of its 27-year-old playwright, and its original, smash-hit production, starring the young Jason Robards and Sandy Dennis, and the subsequent movie version, anticipated the slew of comedies about lovable anti-establishment kooks that would flood the decade.
Americans have always loved a spirited, life-giving maverick. Murray Burns, the determinedly unemployed television writer and the free-living guardian of his wisecracking 12-year-old nephew, is a Jewish descendant of Auntie Mame and the tax-dodging Grandpa Vanderhof of "You Can't Take It With You."
But Murray is also related to the contemptuous, sexually virile anti-heroes of the British kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950's. He's a defanged, sitcom version of Jimmy Porter, the swinish Lothario of "Look Back in Anger." American audiences, weary of the gray-flannel conformity of the Eisenhower era, were eager to embrace Murray the iconoclast, all the more so because at heart he was sweet and cuddly.
Murray's studiedly whimsical charm isn't so easy to put over now. It's hard not to wince at a man whose idea of a liberating good time is to yell at the rich people on Park Avenue to come out and play volleyball, or whose seduction of impressionable young women involves strumming "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" on the ukulele.
Mr. Hirsch, improbably enough, keeps his dignity. But he does so by maintaining a firm, polite distance from the character. The actor is in his underplaying mode (as opposed to his overplaying one, which can be seen in the movie "Independence Day"), which turns Murray Burns into one sad clown.
It is possible that this is deliberate. While Mr. Gardner has made a lucrative career of celebrating the antic individualist (as in such later works as "Thieves" and "I'm Not Rappaport"), his plays have always been tinged with melancholy: an awareness that prose wins out over poetry in the everyday world.
Emphasizing this aspect has the advantage of diluting the excessive cuteness in "Clowns," but the interpretation hasn't been thought through. A Murray without joie de vivre saps the play of its energy, and it doesn't tally with other people's descriptions of him or the effect he has on them.
This creates extra work for the supporting actors. It's not at all clear, for example, why Ms. Hinkle's character, an insecure social worker, falls into bed with Murray on the day she meets him. The magnetism just isn't there. But Ms. Hinkle, playing the kind of winsome neurotic Sandy Dennis specialized in, has a glowing, lyrical presence and a melodic way with a line that could draw charm from a grocery list.
The reliable Mr. Margulies is effectively understated as Murray's pragmatic brother. And as the nephew, Dov Tiefenbach, who looks like a miniature Judd Hirsch and sounds like a taxi horn, expertly steers clear of preciousness.
By its end, however, the play seems to belong a character known as Chuckles the Chipmunk. That's Leo Herman, Murray's former employer and the anguished star of a children's show who admits he doesn't get along with kids. Alternately groveling and arrogant, John Procaccino's Leo has such zest, even in his frenzies of self-abasement, that he singlehandedly raises the evening's temperature.
Chuckles the Chipmunk is meant to represent the nasty prostitution of commercialism, the dismal prospect of Murray's selling out. In this production, Mr. Procaccino's fully charged comic performance makes the character seem more like a lifeline.
Painting smiles on "A Thousand Clowns" in record time, the Roundabout Theater Company has pieced together a credible, if uninspired, revival of Herb Gardner's 1962 warhorse. Last-minute changes in cast and director are evident in some awkward pacing, but the production probably won't disappoint those looking to see Judd Hirsch do his Judd Hirsch thing.
A longtime Gardner vet, Hirsch stepped in last month to replace Robert Klein, who reportedly was dismissed along with original director Gene Saks after the playwright caught a rehearsal. Roundabout alum Scott Ellis stepped in as director.
One can only guess at what Gardner observed that displeased him so; one can only wish that what wound up onstage could inspire such strong feelings one way or another. The production's nearly three-hour running time is considerably longer than any theatrical afterglow audiences are likely to feel. Save for a charmingly crotchety performance by young Dov Tiefenbach as the "middle-aged child" under the care of his even more crotchety uncle, "A Thousand Clowns" is a fairly unremarkable affair.
Hirsch, of course, plays the eccentric uncle, Murray Burns, an out-of-work gag writer who has dropped out of the rat race of penning words for TV's Chuckles the Chipmunk (John Procaccino). Gardner's anti-conformist speeches must have seemed more daring, or at least novel, in 1962, and certainly the playwright even then was smart enough to catch the selfish flip side of the character's headstrong individualism.
Murray has raised 12-year-old nephew Nick (Tiefenbach) since the boy's mother abandoned him six years earlier. The unconventional upbringing (by 1962 standards, anyway: Nick writes essays on the advantages of unemployment insurance, and his favorite toy is a hula-dancer doll with flashing lights for breasts) has come to the attention of the fancy school he attends, and two child welfare workers are dispatched to check out the boy's home environment.
Cartoonishly played by Jim Fyfe and Marin Hinkle, the social workers take a dim view of the cluttered apartment (good set by Henry Dunn and Ben Edwards) and Murray's lenient standards, reserving special disdain for his unemployment. The female half of the pair, however, soon melts under Murray's charm (audience just has to take its existence on faith), moves in, redecorates and encourages Murray to get a job to ensure continued custody.
Play's conflict is whether Murray will eat crow and work for the chipmunk, or hold to his principals and lose custody of the boy. It takes him much longer than the audience to arrive at an answer. The script is partly at fault, since Murray's moral revolt is unconvincingly explained. At least in that respect, Hirsch's casting doesn't help: The actor, who first played this role in 1964, comes off more as a burned-out crank than a starry-eyed idealist.
The play itself is of the early Neil Simon school, though not often as funny under Ellis' workmanlike direction. As the shrink who falls for Murray, Hinkle, a good actress, at times flails a bit too hysterically, though a similar over-the-top turn by Procaccino as the kiddie-show star (played by Saks in the original production) injects some energy late in the game.
But none of the Gardner veterans is as amusing as the 14-year-old Tiefenbach. This kid looks and sounds like a kvetching Garment District tailor, his comic timing nicely in sync with Hirsch's well-honed delivery. Audience at the reviewed performance responded accordingly. He's a real find, even when "A Thousand Clowns" seems a bit lost.