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Theater Review : Few Laughs In 'A Thousand Clowns'

July 29, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN DEMAC

SAN DIEGO — In May, the Mission Bay Playhouse took a gamble that the public would come out to see David Rabe's "Hurlyburly," a grim and often devastating look at life in the fast lane of Hollywood agents, actors and writers.

Despite a fine production, the playhouse lost. "Hurlyburly" played to mere handfuls of people until an actor quit and the show closed early.

If there were justice, the Playhouse would now have a hit on its hands to make up for what turned out to be a costly offering on the altar of art.

Instead, it has a misguided production of Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns" playing through Aug. 29. On the surface, this comedy (a stage and film hit) seems sure-fire. That it isn't is proven in this show in which every directing, acting, costume and set choice seems almost perversely determined to be wrong.

It is a sad evening with few survivors.

At the heart of the play is the relationship between Murray, an out-of-work comedy writer, and his nephew, Nick, whose mother left him in Murray's care.

The two play off a tried-and-true odd-couple formula. Murray is middle-aged, going on 12. Nick is 12, going on middle-aged. Nick is a serious little boy who reads the want ads to Murray, encouraging him to get a job. Murray is whimsical, outrageous and fun and has no intention of getting a job or being responsible in any way--that is until the Child Welfare Office threatens to take Nick away. Then he has to choose between his life style and his kid.

That's the idea, anyway. Under Edythe Pirazzini's direction, what is offered instead is a version so opposite that it might have come out of a looking-glass world.

There is nothing about Doug MacDonald's Murray that suggests a lover of people and of life; he's bitter and nasty. He doesn't live in comfortable, colorful clutter either; Richard Snyder's set, adequately lit by Ken Merrell and Robert Larsen, is drab, messy and depressing.

Even Murray's clothes are inappropriately mature. It seems odd that a man who casually wears a muted, coordinated outfit of a blue tailored shirt and gray slacks panics at one point and says he has nothing respectable to wear.

As Nick, Caleb Montana (he alternates the role with Joseph Aspaas) wins the likable contest hands down, but isn't a whit more right for his part than MacDonald is for his. Montana is kid through and through--not a trace of the wizened old man spirit that makes the character funny. And where formal clothes might have helped, he instead wears a baseball shirt, jeans and sneakers.

The supporting actors do better, but a telling level of amateurishness prevails. Sheryl Smee has some nice sniffling moments as the social worker who falls for her case. The one true breath of fresh air is Ken Merrell as Leo Herman, also known as Chuckles the Chipmunk. Nervous and anxious to please in his red suit, Merrell catches just the right anxious tone for this clown who tries too hard to be funny.

It is Chuckles who preempts the "Murray" show by hiring Murray to write Chuckles jokes rather than doing his own thing.

If we cared about Murray, Chuckles' entrance would be bittersweet, a sacrifice of self that Murray makes for the kid he loves. In this production, though, Merrell's bright and frenetic presence comes as such a relief that the only sad part is that Chuckles didn't come sooner.

"A THOUSAND CLOWNS" By Herb Gardner. Director is Edythe Pirazzini. Set by Richard Snyder. Lighting and sound by Ken Merrell and Robert Larsen. With Doug MacDonald, Caleb Montana, Joseph Aspaas, Kirk Laughead, Sheryl Smee, Stanley L. Hollingworth and Ken Merrell. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Aug. 29. At the Mission Bay Playhouse, 1936 Quivira Way.

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