A Thousand Clowns

At the Wilbur

Spontaneity has been overdone of late, and Herb Gardner's first play almost does it again. Everyone knows that the Organization Men are bad, and the real nutty guys who do what's natural are good. Murray Burns, if handled any less imaginatively, would be just another poor-but-happy-go-lucky slob.

Who is Murray Burns all you out there in Crimsonland might ask. He is a television scriptwriter, creator of Chuckles Chipmunk, who quit his job because he found himself talking kideroonie talk. Murray, who will not be forced into the patterns of artificial idiocy, is also the guardian of Nick Burns, a precocious bastard of twelve. And most important, Murray is Jason Robards, Jr.

Society (bad) is encroaching on these two fancy-free individuals. A pair of social workers descend to determine whether Murray is a suitable father-figure. One (male) leaves indignantly to file a negative report. The other (the other) stays the night to help stabilize the home, and, like Wendy, to provide these little boys with a mother and like that.

Luckily, Spontaneity does not slay the dragon; it negotiates, largely from fear, and compromises. Murray, to keep the social worker and his delightful nephew, appeases Madison Avenue (evil) by returning to his job. And they all live happily ever after. In sin.

Herb Gardner, who lauds the virtues of undisciplined living and childlike, unprejudiced perceptivity, is a whimsical creator himself. Originator of the nebbish, Gardner has one television play, one novel, and one (the program tells all) outstanding short story to his credit. This play mustn't be a lone effort. It is a wonderful, wonderful cartoon that shows great feeling for both exaggeration and understatement. Satire without ostentatious poignancy, daffiness that doesn't amount to incoherence, Gardner's play is that miracle, a comedy at which people laugh.

A thoughtful review would urge that some cuts be made before the show reaches New York, and I suppose the start of the third act is most likely to recede. But last night's audience at the Wilbur seemed grateful to have seen the uncut version.

Robards reveals a brilliant sense of comedy and timing as Murray. He not only wrings the humor briskly from each line, but handles Gardner's serious, poetic commentary on the advantages of childishness with matter-of-fact clarity. Barry Gordon plays the precocious one good-naturedly, thus steering clear of Clichesville.

Sandra Dennis as the Social Worker is so popular in the First Act that she never varies her technique. Her changes are all mechanical: laughter to tears, shaky whisper to assertive declaration... but she's still good, and so is the rest of the cast.

A Thousand Clowns is a delightful play, and just for the record, Herb Gardner is no relative of mine.