"A Thousand Clowns" at the Irvine Community Theater often seems on the verge of taking a saccharine-coated path to tell the story of an unemployed gag writer fighting to keep custody of his precocious nephew. But just when the sentimentality seems to outpace the laughs, director Art Winslow taps the play's latent zaniness.
Herb Gardner's 1962 comedy centers on the relationship between Nick (Tim Titus) and Murray (Tom Titus, Tim's real-life father), an idiosyncratic soul who quit his job and straight society years ago to pursue the important things: movie-watching, people-studying, kvetching and child-rearing. Nick is his greatest creation, raised lovingly to appreciate the silly and avoid the serious. But the bureaucracy--in this case, the New York City child welfare board--thinks Murray's far too irresponsible and delivers an ultimatum--find a job or lose the boy. It's a clash of wills and principles that leaves Murray compromised but unbowed.
Fortunately, the tendency toward mawkishness is diluted by a cast that consistently relishes the absurdly comic in its roles. Tom Titus seems most comfortable in the role--as comfortable as he is in the T-shirt and baggy underwear emblazoned with hearts that he wears during much of the play. His Murray is the strutting, benign ruler of a very small world (the messy one-bedroom apartment he shares with Nick), and he shows the ridiculousness and the grace of his position. He does succumb at times to the comedy's heavy-handedness (a preachy soliloquy on work's doldrums is especially overdone), but these are small blemishes in an otherwise clean performance.