What’s the old theater saying – every clown wants to play Hamlet? Or maybe it’s scratch a comic, and you’ll find a sad, angry man. Either way, there’s some truth in it – as demonstrated by the legendary story of the great Bert Lahr, late in his career, who with trepidation undertook the role of Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, giving a performance that – in the eyes of some critics – bestowed upon Lahr a new legitimacy, though anyone with eyes could tell from The Wizard of Oz that the man was genius.
That story is recounted in the program notes for Funnyman, Bruce Graham’s new play at the Arden, which is also based on the tale of Lahr and Godot. Spoiler alert – the notes are better than the play.
Graham – who has been both an actor and a comic, as well as a playwright – certainly knows the territory. It’s not just Lahr who is his subject here – he’s also looking at the seismic change in entertainment that occurred in the 1950s and ‘60s – when traditional vaudeville went out of style, and its practioners – mostly old men – found themselves working with younger artists who had no regard for their elders.
But Funnyman keeps missing its mark. Though clearly riffing on Lahr, Graham invents fictitious doppelganger characters working on a different (also fictitious) play – why? He loads on a far-from-fresh secondary story about the comic’s broken relationship with his daughter. And in the play’s worst miscalcuation, the playwright character is turned into a campy parody of Tennessee Williams, which makes no sense and – notwithstanding a clever impersonation by actor Keith Conallen – is a tacky, cheap shot.
Funnyman has too much plot and not enough character development, and director Matt Pfeiffer’s production – full of short, punchy scenes staged like vaudeville sketches – also seems to slide over the surface. There’s not much for the actors to work with, especially in the first act, where they’re mostly delivering exposition. There’s more substance in act II, but it’s late in coming. In the central role of Chick Sherman (the Lahr character), Carl N. Wallnau is good in the simpler, more serious scenes – but though he labors mightily on his vaudeville shtick, the results are unconvincing.
More than anything, Funnyman is a missed opportunity. Hovering nearby, but never arriving on stage, is the much better true story – of Waiting for Godot, a masterpiece; and Bert Lahr, who was… well, Bert Lahr.
Funnyman runs through March 6. For more information, visit the Arden Theatre Company website.