By Trevor Griffiths
Directed by Scott Elliott
Ensemble Featuring Jim Dale, Raul Esparza, David McCallum
Samuel Beckett Theatre / Theatre Row on West 42nd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer
The setting is a secondary school classroom in the mid 1970s, the occasion is the final night class in a series for adults, and the course is about makin’ ’em laugh–for the students are all aspiring "Comedians". They’re all male, but otherwise they come in all stripes, slapstick, traditional, ethnic, even punk…their teacher is a once-popular comic himself…and later on this evening there’s what might be considered their graduation ceremony: a half-hour slot in a local auditorium where "the bingo" will be interrupted for thirty minutes while the guys try out their various acts…knowing that a talent scout is in the audience and that the reward for a job well done is the next level–getting an agent.

This is the third time I’ve seen British playwright Trevor Griffith’s rumination on the dark places that inform the light art: the first was the Broadway debut, directed by Mike Nichols; the second was an upstate production directed by Ron Holgate; this one has been helmed by Scott Elliott. It’s been a downhill ride. And not without good reason:

However good or bad any one of these comics is supposed to be, a real reflex for comedy, for focus, for timing, must be at the heart of its presentation. Without that understanding, the play seems inauthentic and labored. Certainly Nichols, a former comedian himself, has that in spades (he was half of Nichols and May, the latter being the famous Elaine, who also went on to bigger and better things). Mr. Holgate didn’t really have standup in his blood, but as a longtime musical comedy veteran, he certainly brought a bit of flair to the table; not as sharp or insightful as it could be, but he understood what getting the laugh was about.

Scott Elliott’s stock-in-trade is slice-of-life realism. Very dark slice-of-life realism most of the time. Darkness absolutely informs "Comedians" all the way through–there’s a thread of white-hot anger in it from start to finish–but the verité you bring to it must have its roots in the funny. In understanding the nature of funny. The portrait of an unfunny comic only works if the potential for genuine funny walks alongside it. And if this doesn’t make sense to you, then I’m sorry, you have no more affinity for this material than does Mr. Elliott.

His revival keeps subtly misfiring, because in a manner that’s difficult to articulate but plain to see, the discomfort and desperation of the "worst" of the amateur comedians is not helped by a sense of discomfort on the part of the actors playing them. Because they don’t seem naturally attuned to the comedy world, they seem to be floundering for purchase, and the performances are cluttered, a little scattershot. As for the better comics among the classmates–they’re simply not good enough. Again, the same sense of displacement, of being out of sync with the play’s texture.

To be sure, there are bright spots: Jim Dale does a fine job as the teacher, as does David McCallum as the scout; both authentic Brits by birth, both expert at comedy, both grand old veterans and both with the instinct and technique that lets them key into what’s needed. And rising star Raúl Espasrza is quite good as the angry young punker–but he’s supposed to be angrier than funny, and without funnier guys around him by way of contrast, his form of rebellion seems less powerful than it ought, and rather like one more aberration in a roomful.

This New Group production of "Comedians" is not a disgrace, not a disaster, not even unwatchable or dull…it is, however, insufficient. And proves that the play, like the art it explores, is harder to put across than it looks…