For professional comics, making people laugh is a serious business. Combine that with the difficulty–after decades as an established star of Vaudeville and physical comedy–of trying to transition into the new medium of story-based television in the 1950s, then attempting a comeback in the unfamiliar discipline of avant-garde Off-Broadway theater, and you have the dilemma faced by protagonist Chick Sherman in Bruce Graham’s newest play, FUNNYMAN. Though the work revolves around the field of comedy, and is filled with hilarious lines and laugh-out-loud sight-gags, the underlying psychological and emotional content is anything but light-hearted and funny. It’s a poignant examination of the fickleness of show biz, the desperation of being a performer who needs to get laughs, the torment of growing old and out of date, and the struggle to change with the times, to remain relevant, valued, and loved, while under the gun of being replaced by a newer, younger, and increasingly popular generation.
Based in part on the biographies and career trajectories of Buster Keaton and Bert Lahr, Graham’s play considers the parallels between the world of the theater and the personal life of a performer. As Sherman and his agent try to restore the comic’s fading career (“Nothing wears out faster than comedy”), his adult daughter Katherine, a librarian with a keen interest in research, has questions about the past for her largely absentee father, revealing a man that his fans never really knew, in a dysfunctional relationship with a family that never really knew each other.
Arden Theatre Company’s rolling world premiere (in conjunction with Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL) captures the tragedy that too often underlies comedy, with well-balanced direction by Matt Pfeiffer and sensitive characterizations by a top-notch cast that delivers the pathos along with the humor of Graham’s insightful script and telling stage directions. Carl N. Wallnau as the ill-tempered “pain in the ass” Sherman is the archetypal sad clown, a tortured man laughing on the outside and crying on the inside, until his public façade of “wowza” is cracked, and the hurt and angry Katherine (the excellent Emilie Krause) at last comes to understand the toll her father’s life in show business has taken on him since childhood—a childhood he never really had.
Kenny Morris is superb as Chick’s long-suffering and ever-supportive agent Milt (Junior) Karp, who epitomizes old New York but recognizes the need to adapt to current fashions. Charlie DelMarcelle, as director Matthew Baroni, defines the emerging style of experimental theater and its obsession with motivation, concepts, and (over) interpretation rather than instinct, and Keith Conallen is a riot as playwright Victor La Plant, an effusive, flamboyant Southerner with an Alabama accent and a penchant for cocktails. Rounding out the cast is the charming Brian Cowden as Katherine’s sympathetic office mate and love interest Nathan Wise.
Vintage hair-dos and costumes (Alison Roberts), props and furnishings (scenic design by Brian Sidney Bembridge), establish the mid-century style of FUNNYMAN’S transitional era, while black-and-white clips from ‘50s sit-coms contrast with original TV commercials featuring Chick and his old-fashioned shtick (videography by the brilliant Jorge Cousineau). It all adds up to another stellar work by Graham and the Arden.
[40 N. 2nd St., Arcadia Stage] January 14-March 6, 2016; ardentheatre.org.