A group of working-class-type guys of different origins--Irish, English, Jewish, etc.--are anxious to escape the dreary, daily grind of their lives. And they've got a plan. They've all been training, working hard, studying under a top-notch teacher, and they're ready to break out. How are they going to do it? Through stand-up comedy, of course.
Trevor Griffiths' play Comedians originally appeared on Broadway in 1976. Set in Manchester, England, it was a contemporary play that examined social and political issues of the time through the eyes of the comedian. It also looked at more timeless racial issues that could just as easily apply to today, asking some interesting questions about what is and what is not truly funny. Is it the comedian's role to merely entertain, even if that means cracking a cheap ethnic joke? Or should the comedian seek to be truthful first and foremost, creating humor by giving lie to stereotypes? Griffiths' point-of-view is clearly the latter; but we learn that, at least in the time and place of the play, it was professional suicide to be a truth-seeking comedian.
The fellows in question are six guys who are taking a night school class in stand-up comedy from the well-respected comedian Eddie Waters (George Taylor). The action of the play unfolds on the night of their final class, after which they are to perform at a local club. The good news is that a talent agent who more or less has the power to make their careers will be there to watch them perform; the bad news is that, as they discover moments before it's time for them to go on, the agent is a man who prefers jokes that don't take risks. The job of the comedian is not to lecture, but to entertain, he insists. The need to choose between doing the kind of comedy they believe in or selling out to get a shot at fame leaves each man with an important decision to make. Some of them fall back on reliable crowd-pleasing material, while others charge ahead and do their acts as planned. Accordingly, some of them get signed by the agent, but most of them don't.
This new production of Comedians is playing in LaMama's cabaret theater, The Club, an especially appropriate setting for the section of the play set in the workingman's club where the guys perform their stand-up acts. Griffiths' original text (which had been altered for the Broadway production) is being used here; and, happily, the cast is made up entirely of foreign actors who give the dialogue the authoritative sound of native accents and backgrounds, thereby lending a feeling of authenticity to the enterprise.
A potential problem with Comedians is that it doesn't speak clearly to a contemporary American audience; the socio-political climate 1970s Manchester is probably not well known to your average East Villager. Further, the idea that these guys expect to graduate from an adult night class to stardom seems a little farfetched.
All of this might be easier to take if we knew more about the characters. Aside from brief mentions of day jobs, wives, and where the men are from, we find out little about their backgrounds and past experiences, what led them to comedy, or even their feelings relative to the central question of what it means to be a good comedian. Griffiths tries to give us something to hold onto by filling in most of these blanks for one of the group, a troubled young man named Gethin Price (Shawn Corbett) whose act turns out to be a brave--though violent, bitter, and decidedly unfunny--personal statement. Though he and Eddie clash several times, never quite seeing eye-to-eye, they do learn something from each another. But even this conflict doesn't go deep enough or come to a clear enough resolution to be satisfying.
Griffiths gets points for having the guts to write what is essentially a drama about comedians; still, with that title, one would expect the play to be funnier than it is. In sum, we get an intriguing situation, great performances all around, and a few laughs, but Comedians isn't as compelling as it might have been.