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AS ONE GROWS UP, the idealism of youthful individuality inevitably clashes with realities of adult society. Idealists generally learn that survival, or at least comfort, often requires daily compromise of principles, but such compromise is painful and demoralizing. Sooner or later, though, all but the most exceptional learn to play the game and try to make their peace with themselves.
A Thousand Clowns confronts this poignant process of learning to compromise, but does so without losing its sense of humor. Murray Burns (George Miller), its rebellious and endearing hero, is an unemployed scriptwriter sickened by the necessity to toady to an imbecilic boss. He conducts a one-man protest against hypocrisy and convention, cultivating an air of lunacy to satirize and condemn the emptiness of those who relinquish their freedom for security. Murray holds spirited conversations with the Weather Lady, warning her not to repeat herself, thinks nothing of taking trips to the Statue of Liberty, and habitually admonishes his unheeding neighbors to show up for the next community sing. Murray constructs his own world, one with its own rules and unfailing high standards. He shares this world only with his bright and smart-aleck nephew, Nick (David Scales/Harry Litman). Nick and Murray feed each other straight lines, embellishing each other's routines. They compete for better Peter Lorre imitations and more accurate identification of regional accents (Nick wins on both counts).
The appearance of two social workers, Albert Amundson (John O'Brien) and Sandra Markowitz (Anne Ames), who visit Murray's home to investigate his reliability as a guardian for Nick, threatens the pair's unconventional life. Despite Nick's valiant attempts to assure them he reads educational books and has a healthy and well-adjusted environment, the Child Welfare Board rules that he must leave if Murray does not find a job. To add to Murray's dilemma, he and Sandy fall in love, and his free-spirit faces the agonizing choice of kowtowing to society's definition of "well-adjusted" or losing the two people he values most.
The Leverett House production of this amusing and moving show lives up to the fine script. Scarcely a weak spot mars a production graced by excellent acting, good direction, and an appropriately ramshackle set. Miller is superb in a part that requires precise deadpan delivery and a facility for comic monologue--conditions Miller, with his resonant voice, fulfills admirably. His facile transitions from the antic to serious help to underline the serious intent of this comedy.
His expressive face, taut and still when he faces the possibility of losing Nick, twitches with exasperation and anger when enduring the rantings of his boss and grows pleading when he confesses to Nick or Sandy his inability to go job hunting. The only quibble with his magnificent performance is a certain awkwardness in his arm gestures.
Scales and Litman alternate performances as Nick, and both turn in commendable performances as the middle-aged 12-year old who combines an earnest wisdom with a gleeful sense of comedy. Scales begins unevenly marring his performance with unclear diction, rushed lines, and a soft tone, but once he gains his stride he does a good job as Murray's sidekick. He particularly excels in the climatic scene when Murray must decide whether to capitulate to society and return to work. Scales protests Murray's decision with devastating honesty and childlike earnestness.
Litman brings energy, exuberance, and a somewhat different interpretation to the part. He portrays Nick as slightly more wise-ass and more adult, though he too suffers from a too rapid and mumbled delivery at the play's outset. He improves quickly and is especially good at reacting to Miller adding more grimaces and physical schtick to the role.
Ames as Sandy perfects a somewhat prim and precise nasal tone as the fumbling but concerned social worker. She is especially effective when embarassed or clumsy, although occasionally her wide-eyed tone is a bit unconvincing. A marvelous scene ensues after Sandy spends the night at Murray's apartment. She dresses nervously behind a partition, and exchanges banalities about coffee slogans to cover her insecurity about the relationship. Ames also stands out in the scene where her fellow caseworker stalks out, as she futilely tries to pick up the folders which keep dropping out of her hands. The director's hand is noticeable in this and other well-staged moments.
O'Brien shines as the prissy, preppie caseworker who finds Murray incomprehensible. He constantly raises his eyebrows, squirms, pedantically refers to Nick as "the child" and misses the humor in every one of Murray's gibes. In one very funny scene, O'Brien feigns horror at Nick's doll whose well-endowed breasts light up, but with prurient delight, he sneaks a peak at it.
Harry Dorfman as Arnold Burns and Kipp Rogers as Chuckles the Chipmunk, Murray's boss, also measure up to the rest of the cast. Dorfman competently fills the role of Murray's serious brother who compromised long ago and endures Murray's scorn with dignity. Rogers is fittingly unbearable as the pitifully unfunny Chuckles.
Bruce P. Cranston's fine direction is evident throughout the show in the establishment of the fast pace and quick pick-up of cues essential to good comedy. The blocking is generally excellent, and the comic scenes are very well-conceived. One of the rare problems is a somewhat distorted sound system--in a critical scene when Murray listens to his boss over an intercom systvm, the words are marred by static.
While inspiring laughter, the production provokes serious reflection about Murray's valiant fight to resist society. Murray tells Sandy at one point during the play that he will only go as a tourist to reality. He wants to pass on this spirit to Nick, to ensure that he continues to pinpoint hypocrisy and absurdity. Nick should never become one of the "dead people," unthinking and unfeeling. Murray's struggle helps to remind us of the necessity to avoid joining the ranks of the dead. If one must compromise, it must be knowingly and reluctantly.
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