All Hail the Clown King

If nothing else, the revival of Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns confirms that Tom Selleck possesses an adroit sense of comedic timing that can enable a play--even a play as tired as this one--to soar. Murray Burns (Selleck) is a societal drop-out. Grown tired of his position as head writer for a children's television series, Burns goes J.D. Salinger, without the pompousness. He lives with his adopted nephew Nick (Nicolas King) in a New York City apartment. Murray does not work, celebrates his own holidays, and lives as a humorous hermit who can wisecrack on a moment's notice.

But there is trouble in this clown's paradise--two caseworkers from the Bureau of Children's Welfare, Albert and Sandra, pay Murray a visit. They are concerned that little Nick is not receiving a proper parenting from Murray and are close to whisking him away. Bradford Cover's Albert is an anal-retentive, humorless prick. Barbara Garrick's Sandra is a weeping, compassionate, just-out-of-graduate-school liberal--pretty typical of every liberal arts TA I've ever had.

The entire cast gives strong performance, but the star here is Selleck--and deservedly so. When Jason Robards played Murray in a 1965 film, he played it so well that it was hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Selleck ends this perception--his smile, timing, physical movement and delivery impress and capture all that is Murray. It is the warmth of Three Men and a Baby mixed with the smart-alecky Magnum P.I.

Many actors have sought stage work recently as a way to either jump-start their stalled careers or to jump on the stage bandwagon. In his first stage performance ever, Selleck shines.

The problems with A Thousand Clowns are not something that the actors can overcome. Gardner is a very funny writer, and unlike the jokes in his masterpiece I'm Not Rappaport, many of his jokes in A Thousand Clowns die on modern audiences. Granted, this was not a problem with the premiere audience--the average age of the crowd must have been upwards of 65. They were rolling in the aisles, and not just to look for loose change.

At the other end of the spectrum, children will likely enjoy the play as well--although the three-hour length might bewilder them. It sure bewildered me--why is a comedy, any comedy, three hours long? King's performance as the 10-year-old Nick should impress children and hopefully will inspire them to act. The play is a fun show for families and senior citizens--not for the 18-to-49 demographic, who will find many of the jokes flat, despite Selleck and Co.'s efforts.

However, A Thousand Clowns remains a worthwhile theater experience, and more, it's a great way to encourage grandparent-grandchild relations.

--By Martin Barna


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