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Bruce Graham's new play, Funnyman, is more serious than one might expect from the title, and from knowing the Philadelphia playwright's impressive body of work, which has often inspired mirth while also tackling real-life subjects. Perhaps Funnyman is less comedic because it concerns a topic near and dear to Graham: comedy, a serious business to those who create it.
It's interesting, but not essential, to know that the title character, veteran comic — not "comedian" — Chick Sherman, is based on Bert Lahr. Like Lahr, Sherman rose through vaudeville, patenting a shtick that endeared him to live audiences, and then achieved lasting fame for a film performance: for Lahr, it was The Wizard of Oz's Cowardly Lion, and for Sherman it was the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
The parallels extend to a late-career, life-changing foray into avant-garde theater: Lahr acted in the American premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, while Sherman accepts a role in an absurdist play, In Lucy's Kitchen, by fictional playwright Victor La Plant, apparently modeled on Tennessee Williams.
Graham doesn’t just fictionalize theater history (though he does so most entertainingly, mixing real performers into Chick's story), he creates room to explore characters without the burden of biographical fidelity.
Hidden in plain sight
The central relationship is between Chick, played by Carl N. Wallnau with a crotchety imperiousness in public and obsessive self-doubt in private, and his daughter Katharine. She is brought to life with spunky sweetness by Emily Krause, who seems born to wear 1950s fashions (the great period costumes are by Alison Roberts). Chick has kept not only his difficult childhood and real name from Katharine, but also her mother's mysterious death.
Director Matt Pfeiffer's smart, sincere production, which plays fluidly on Brian Sidney Bembridge's bare-stage set (all other locations theatrically suggested by a few pieces of furniture), emphasizes the personal. We see Chick's famous scene in Alice, for instance, not through a filmed re-creation (like his hilarious TV commercials for Bromo-Aid, produced by Jorge Cousineau), and not even played by Wallnau, but through Katharine's imitation, which she honed in slavish detail for a summer camp performance long ago that her father, of course, didn't attend. Chick sees his daughter and his younger self simultaneously, a brilliant balance of humor and heartache.
Kenny Morris plays Chick's long-suffering agent, Milt Karp, the bridge between Chick and Katharine as well as Chick's professional conscience. "Some peple drink, gamble, do drugs," he counsels her. "Your father just needs an audience." Katharine also has a budding romance with Chick fan Nathan (Brian Cowden).
Attention must be paid
Countering this personal story is Chick's foray into Off-Broadway theater. Charlie DelMarcelle plays an avant-garde director who wears (gasp!) turtlenecks to openings and has to be reminded to don a tie to meet Chick. He's got his hands full with Chick — who blows a whistle to insist that attention must be paid to him — plus alcoholic writer La Plant, played with sodden insouciance by Keith Conallen. Graham creates enough of La Plant's play to suggest its power not just as a dark comedy, but as a means for Chick to rediscover and redefine himself.
Ultimately, that's what makes Funnyman soar: not the historical references, not the clever invention of Chick's career highlights (like his trademark "Wowza!"), not even the wise commentary about how comedy has changed post-World War II — but the personal growth of all Graham's characters.
Funnyman is reportedly the second part of Graham's entertainment trilogy. The first, Something Intangible, won a Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play in 2009 at the Arden. The third, Flickering Images, will be set in Hollywood during the late 1940s Red Scare. I can't wait.
For Tara Lynn Johnson’s WNWN interview with Bruce Graham about the writing of Funnyman, click here.
What, When, Where
Funnyman by Bruce Graham. Matt Pfeiffer directed. Through March 6 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
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