Funnyman. By Bruce Graham. Arden Theatre premiere production, directed by Matt Pfeiffer.
Funnyman is a serious play about a comic, not a comical play.
The experienced playwright (and former stand-up comedian) Bruce Graham based it largely on Bert Lahr, the vaudevillian who had a troubled personal life and who, in his aging years, appeared in a serious drama, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Inspiration for Funnyman comes from as far back as the 19th-century actor Edmund Kean who supposedly said “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Confirmation appeared in John Osborne’s The Entertainer in 1957 and the Martin Scorsese-Jerry Lewis movie The King of Comedy in 1982.
In this new play, Chick, an old-school craftsman from the days of burlesque, has been reduced to shoddy television commercials. His agent and long-time protector lands him a role in an absurdist drama that’s directed by a pretentious snot. But Chick is afraid to work in a genre so different from what he grew up in.
A parallel plot concerns the attempt by the comic’s daughter, Katherine, to understand her father and to receive some affection from him. She never had a normal childhood and she searches for the secret behind the death of her mother at an early age.
There’s real drama in how a man set in his ways tries to adapt to new surroundings, and how such a man deals with confusion and fear. Clearly, this is not limited to funnymen on stages. This is enough to make the production memorable.
In the other story, the reasons for Chick’s refusal to talk about the death of Katherine’s mother become understandable, but they are predictable and conventional.
Along the way we get interesting dialogue about changes in the worlds of comedy and theater, and a broad parody of Tennessee Williams. By the way, the story was inspired not only by Lahr’s career but also Buster Keaton’s, and Williams had nothing to do with either of them. This is fiction.
For maximum impact, Funnyman needs a charismatic presence in the title role. Carl N. Wallnau did an excellent job acting the part and brought considerable variety to his character, but never seemed to inhabit the body of a really big star from a long-ago era. Funnyman is a joint world-premiere production with Northlight Theatre in Chicago, and George Wendt (of Cheers) apparently was a success in this role there.
Wallnau had a nice closing scene where he wearily sat and put on makeup, like Pagliacco proclaiming that it’s his job to laugh, clown, laugh.
Kenny Morris was superbly convincing as Milt Carp, Chick’s agent. Keith Conallen did a hilarious turn as the alcoholic Tennessee Williams character, and Charlie DelMarcelle was excellent as the avant-garde director. Emilie Krause, who has done fine work elsewhere, seemed to be too much on the surface of her character of Katherine.
The production looked good as directed by Matt Pfeiffer with a simple stage set by Brian Sidney Bembridge, period costumes by Alison Roberts and video projections by Jorge Cousineau.
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