George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky in Funnyman at Northlight Theatre
George Wendt plays an old-time entertainer adjusting to newfangled tastes.
Chick Sherman (Wendt) is not a comedian, he’s a comic. This is a distinction made more than once in Funnyman, including by Chick himself. A comedian, he says, tells jokes—the province of writers. A comic “says things funny.”
It's 1959, and Chick is an aging vaudeville comic, recognized by kids for one iconic film role as Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter. Now, with the country's artistic tastes changing and bookings getting sparse, he's mulling an offer to do an avant-garde play Off Broadway. At the same time, he's reconnecting with the adult daughter (Amanda Drinkall) whom he's always supported financially but not so much emotionally.
Playwright Bruce Graham's work—this is his fourth consecutive premiere at Northlight—has often struck me as saccharine and/or maudlin. There are hints of that here, but generally this is a more astringent portrait of an artist as an old clown.
Graham is inspired by Bert Lahr, best remembered as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. In 1955, Lahr was approached to play Beckett in the American premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Chick must be persuaded by his long-suffering manager, Junior (Tim Kazurinsky), to take the lead role in In Lucy's Kitchen, a hit in Paris and Germany that Chick can't wrap his head around. (The playwright, Victor LaPlant, is amusingly embodied by Rob Lindley as a sort of hybrid of Beckett and Tennessee Williams.)
Funnyman is a decently endearing ode to old-school entertainers and the dual life of funny men; Wendt captures that dichotomy between Chick's "on" persona and his gruff, tired "off" state. Oddly, though, Graham takes a disparaging view of more modern theatrical ideas, with Steve Haggard's new-school director serving as a target of ridicule. But it's the relationship between Chick and daughter Katharine that's the heart of the play, with Drinkall as an empathetic investigator searching for her father's hidden heart.
Northlight Theatre. By Bruce Graham. Directed by BJ Jones. With George Wendt, Amanda Drinkall, Tim Kazurinsky, Steve Haggard, Rob Lindley, Michael Perez. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.