Clown Time Is Over

In Herb Gardner's 1962 A Thousand Clowns, dogged nonconformist Murray Burns divides the human race into two categories: those who love pastrami and those who don't. Inspired by Murray, I'm moved to classify humanity in another way: those who love Herb Gardner and those who don't. Members of the group that cannot abide the playwright's formulaic comedy-drama will want to steer clear of two current Gardner productions now on local stages. On the other hand, fans of Gardner's shameless sentimentality have reasons to rejoice: Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables features Clowns through this weekend, while Off Broadway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale offers the 1990 Conversations with My Father through March 17.

In a perfect world, a playwright's work evolves over time. From one play to the next, insights sharpen, characters deepen, vision broadens, and details grow more specific. An imperfect world, however, has given us Gardner who, in lieu of developing his dramatic voice, repeats himself with each successive offering. In -- Thousand Clowns, his highly acclaimed first comedy, written when he was 27 years old, Gardner introduced Murray, the curmudgeonly but lovable eccentric who, in the character's words, doesn't take crap from anyone. Brought to life on-stage by Jason Robards and later immortalized by the same actor in the well-received 1965 film version, Murray remains Gardner's most compelling character, and Clowns his best play. Without bothering to modify the formula of his first success, Gardner replicated Murray, albeit in new situations and with different names, in several comedy-dramas written over the next three decades, including The Goodbye People (1968) and I'm Not Rappaport (1984). In his most recent effort, Conversations with My Father, he gave us Eddie Goldberg, an iconoclastic bar owner who, according to the script, doesn't take shit from anyone. Okay, okay, maybe substituting shit for crap signals an evolution of sorts.

A Thousand Clowns is perhaps the best of Gardner's lot, but its life-is-a-carnival sensibility feels hopelessly dated in the revival at Actors' Playhouse. Having bowed out of his gig as head writer for the insipid children's television show Chuckles the Chipmunk, Murray Burns (David Arisco, also artistic director of Actors' Playhouse) supports himself and his nephew Nick (Sean Russell A Arisco's real-life stepson) on unemployment checks. Ostensibly looking for work, Murray spends his days roaming Manhattan or going to the movies, no longer participating in the rat race. Alas, trouble arises when social service workers question whether an unemployed bachelor should be rearing a young boy.

When the play was written in 1962, a middle-class child being raised by a single adult was relatively rare; today it's an accepted practice, even for men. In the play's milieu the supporting characters consider Murray radical when he jumps on the Holden Caulfield bandwagon and brands everyone he knows a phony. And because he lives by his wits and imagination, Murray is termed "maladjusted." Such responses seem quaint by current standards. Three decades after Clowns debuted, eccentricity has gone mainstream: in music, in fashion, even in the business world, which values the creative entrepreneur over the Fifties-style organization man.

The most blatantly retro element of the play, however, is the character of Sandra Markowitz (Andrea O'Connell). Having dared to get her Ph.D. in psychology (now that was a truly nonconformist option for a woman at the time), Sandra must put up with her social services boss/boyfriend Albert (Wayne LeGette) persistently referring to her as "Miss" rather than "Doctor." When she finally challenges him, he fires her. Instead of fighting for her job, however, she snuggles into Murray's nest, donning an apron, baking cookies, cleaning up the bachelor-pad mess, and redecorating with curtains and flowers. Exposure to Murray's offbeat personality and the chance to take care of him apparently inspire her more than her career did. For his part, Murray now has to fight domestication on the home front as well as mediocrity in the world at large.

Arland Russell's amiable direction preserves the comedy's original tone of sweetness spiked with some occasionally tart one-liners. As Murray, Arisco gets off to an uncertain start -- possibly because he's forced to mince around the stage in his boxer shorts during the opening scene A but eventually his character sports a credible air of jaded bemusement while making witty pronouncements. Sean Russell gives a precocious performance as twelve-year-old Nick; O'Connell brings a ditzy comic energy to the woefully limited role of Sandra. And George Contini, as the pretentious and insecure Leo Herman (the man inside the Chuckles the Chipmunk costume on TV), delivers the best line of the evening -- over a speaker phone, no less -- when he admits to Murray that he's "one of the biggest no-talents of all time." In the end, however, Russell and his willing cast cannot dredge -- Thousand Clowns out of the period in which it is mired.

In the largely autobiographical Conversations with My Father, Gardner pits the values of Russian Jewish immigrant Eddie Goldberg, the stubborn proprietor of a Manhattan saloon, against those of the herd. To his now-standard narrative the playwright adds Charlie, Eddie's millionaire writer son. With Charlie as narrator we journey through innumerable scenes that revisit life in the family bar -- and war between father and son -- from the Thirties through the Seventies. A shopworn device to begin with, the narrator in Conversations proves especially cloying; Charlie constantly seeks his father's approval, then justifies his father's rejection of him to the audience.

Directed by David Taylor London, the version at Off Broadway essentially reprises London's production of the play last winter at the now-defunct Hollywood Performing Arts Theatre in Hollywood, with many of the same actors in key roles. In particular, Michael Goldsmith re-creates Eddie, and Walter Zukovski once again plays the colorful Yiddish theater actor Zaretsky. Perhaps because London has not sufficiently accommodated this new production to Off Broadway's much larger stage, Goldsmith and Zukovski's performances lack last year's intimacy. Here, Goldsmith appears vacant-eyed and strains to connect with both the audience and his character, while Zukovski's portrayal could use more spark. Conversely, as Gusta, Charlie's mother, Christine DiMattei re-delivers a spicy performance in a minor role. (Would that Gardner had written a play about her instead of this lamentable homage to her husband: a cruel manipulator, an unapologetically anti-Semitic Jew who considers it his mission to prove that New World Jews can be as macho as their Italian and Irish neighbors).

A keen choice on London's part this time around was casting a new actor as the narrator: Tom Wahl gives a solid performance in the unenviable part of Charlie, a present-day foil forced to sit around grinning as he revisits scenes from the past, or to pontificate when he stitches together those scenes for the audience through long-winded exposition.

Ultimately, whereas Clowns is sweet, Conversations proves saccharine; whereas Clowns is tart, Conversations seems bitter; whereas Clowns slides into sentimentality, Conversations turns positively maudlin. And unfortunately, despite eliciting several decent performances from his actors, director London's interpretation of Gardner's most recent play illuminates all of its shortcomings.

Stage Whispers
"I have a problem," actress Loretta Swit confides. "I don't know who I am." In Song of Singapore, currently playing at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Swit stars as Rose of Rangoon, a sultry torch singer suffering from amnesia. In this musical spoof of black-and-white movies from the Forties, Rose finds herself marooned in a seedy Singapore nightclub with a host of disreputable characters on the eve of World War II. Embroiled in a plot that features murder, stolen jewels, an inscrutable dragon lady, crooked police, and Japanese invaders, the lounge diva cannot locate her passport. Not only that, she doesn't remember her name. But she can recall the lyrics to all her songs: Forties-era blues, jazz, and swing tunes written by Eric Frandsen, Robert Hipkens, Michael Garin, and Paula Lockhart. And Swit, as Rose, runs through these numbers backed by an on-stage band, each of whose members has a role in the show.

Unless South Florida audiences also have amnesia, they'll remember the feisty Swit as "Hot Lips" Houlihan on the television series M*A*S*H. While Swit admits that "my experience in television was wonderful," she notes that her performing roots are in the theater: She understudied Sandy Dennis in the comedy Any Wednesday, appeared in the original Odd Couple (both in New York), and spent a year and a half in a Las Vegas production of Mame before being lured away by the small screen in the Seventies. And since her ten and a half seasons as head nurse Houlihan, Swit toured for three years in Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine.

"The stage is where I come from," she notes. "It's my first love and actually was all I thought I would ever do."

Describing Rose of Rangoon as "a combination Dorothy Lamour-Rita Hayworth-Lynn Barry-Jane Greer -- every damsel in distress in a Forties movie," Swit likens Song of Singapore to "a little bit of Casablanca thrown in with the [Bob Hope and Bing Crosby] road pictures, plus a slice of Gilda." And she hints that she and the cast "kind of use the audience, which is a nice surprise and a lot of fun." You can join the act through February 11 at the Amaturo Theater, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Call 462-0222 for further information.

A Thousand Clowns.
Written by Herb Gardner; directed by Arland Russell; with David Arisco, Andrea O'Connell, Sean Russell, Wayne Legette, and George Contini. Through February 4. Call 444-9293 or see "Calendar" listings.

Conversations With My Father.
Written by Herb Gardner; directed by David Taylor London; with Tom Wahl, Michael Goldsmith, Walter Zukovski, and Christine DiMattei. Through March 17. Call 566-0554 or see "Calendar" listings.

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