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Tom Selleck and Barbara Garrick
in A Thousand Clowns
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
There are fewer clowns in the current Broadway production of Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. John Rando directs and TV star Tom Selleck stars in a more serious, somewhat sadder version of the play than we have previously seen.

This is not to say that the humor has been drained out of this witty work, but rather that the emphasis has subtly shifted away from the tempestuous quirkiness of its hero, Murray Burns (Selleck). It is now more pointedly centered on the sacrifice that Murray must make for the good of his young nephew. In this production, Murray isn't just a noble, loveable eccentric who finally gives in to the demands of society in the name of love; he's a man who is actually brought down by love. Gardner's play reveals a surprising elasticity. It proves to be such a strong, textured piece as to easily endure a reinterpretation that changes it from heartwarming to heart-wrenching.

In its earlier incarnations, A Thousand Clowns seemed to play both ends against the middle. The play tweaks conventional society via Murray's nonconformist attitude, yet it capitulates to middle-class values in that the hero ultimately (if reluctantly) rejoins society in order to remain the guardian of his young nephew. One would expect audiences to be repelled by the bitter climax of the current production. Murray has a speech midway through the play in which he explains how, on the subway one morning, he realized the deadening nature of his life. In the play's last moment, after Murray has made the difficult decision to go back to work for his loathsome ex-boss, we hear the meaningful sound of a roaring subway train. Then the stage darkens and the curtain falls.

Talk about depressing! At least at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, another "non-conformist versus society" play from the same era, Chief Bromden escapes the hero McMurphy's fate. There is no escape in A Thousand Clowns. Nonconformity waves a white flag--and it's an unconditional surrender. Society wins. But here's the surprise: Audiences don't seem to mind. The uncompromising position of this production isn't off-putting thanks to the presence of its enormously popular star. It was clearly on Tom Selleck's name that this show came to Broadway, and his personal appeal will no doubt allow it to commercially withstand its stunningly grim finale.

Let's talk about Selleck. There's a line of dialogue in which Murray's brother Arnold (Robert LuPone) chides him that things will be different in 10 years when he has lost his youth. So, yes, the 56-year-old Selleck is a little long in the tooth for this role. He's no spring chicken. But he acts as if he is, and that--plus the magic of theater--does the trick. He makes us believe in Murray because, at bottom, Selleck is an inherently charming actor. While Jason Robards in the original play and movie (and Judd Hirsch in the recent Roundabout Theatre revival) displayed a mercurial zaniness, Selleck sells his Murray through a familiar sort of bad-boy charm. And he does it convincingly, despite the fact that he looks and sounds about as Jewish as the Pope. It doesn't hurt that Selleck has never appeared more genuinely handsome. Gone is the beefcake body and chiseled, too-pretty face; here, he is appealingly weathered rather than plastic-covered weatherproof.

This production is both Selleck's stage and Broadway debut. Oh, the power of television! While accomplished stage performers Robert LuPone and Mark Blum have their shining moments in support of Selleck, one can't help feeling that these fine actors deserve to be Broadway leads themselves. On the other hand, you don't often see crowds waiting at stage doors for a glimpse of thespians who are not also movie or TV stars. The theater needs the kind of energy that actors like Selleck provide. It also needs to draw folks who might not otherwise go to the theater. Consider that busloads of people are experiencing the talents of LuPone and Blum for the first time precisely because Tom Selleck is starring in A Thousand Clowns.

LuPone plays Murray's brother Arnold with a combination of warmth, patience, and dignity. He's the sellout character the audience loves best because he has a great speech, exquisitely delivered, in which he defends his place in society. Blum as Murray's ex-boss Leo, a wildly neurotic children's TV star, gives yet another brilliant, grounded performance. This relatively unsung actor was unforgettable in Lost in Yonkers, Gore Vidal's The Best Man, and now again in A Thousand Clowns. He tends to be overlooked because his work is subtle, never showy. As Leo, his mixture of self-loathing and rampant egotism creates a devastating showbiz portrait.

Also excellent is Bradford Cover as the officious social worker Albert Amundson. If Albert enters as a stock character, Cover makes sure he exits gracefully as a human being. Barbara Garrick plays the sympathetic Sandra Markowitz, Murray's slightly cockeyed love interest, with modest flair. The only performance that really hurts the production is that of Nicolas King as Murray's 10-year-old nephew, Nick. The kid has the right look and attitude for the part but he constantly swallows his words, so it's hard to pick up his dialogue. This is a glaring problem for which the rest of the cast must work hard to compensate.

Allen Moyer's character-defining set design consists mostly of a one-room apartment that is a delightfully masculine mess until it suffers what Murray refers to as "an attack by the Ladies' Home Journal." Brian MacDevitt's lighting emphasizes the human dimensions of the apartment, while Martin Pakledinaz's costumes indicate the frailties as well as the bravado of the people who wear them. Finally, John Rando's delicate direction has given this familiar play a fresh, thought-provoking twist.

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