An AP ARTS REVIEW: Finding the truth and the integrity behind the laugh

The Associated Press
1/15/03 6:50 PM

NEW YORK (AP) -- "It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind 'em," says an aging veteran of the stand-up comic wars.

And what lies behind them forms the heart and scabrous soul of "Comedians," Trevor Griffiths' bleak account of six ordinary blokes who want to make people laugh. The play, first seen in England in 1975 and later that year on Broadway, is now getting its first major New York revival, courtesy of off-Broadway's New Group.

"Comedians," set in Manchester, England, is a problematic play, eventually too obvious for its own good. But this production, wonderfully realized in designer Derek McLane's shabby sets, is buoyed by a superb cast, led by Jim Dale, Raul Esparza and David McCallum, and the unsentimental, unsparing direction of Scott Elliott.

These would-be comics, a convenient collection of various specimens of manhood, attend a night-school class in learning stand up. It is taught by Eddie Waters, who had the stuff to make it big but never did. As played by Dale, Eddie is a gentle soul, a frayed, yet keen observer of human nature who somehow got off track.

The reason he became lost in action is explained rather too glibly at the end of the evening, but until then, "Comedians" is a stimulating, convincing and highly charged piece of theater.

When we come into the action, the men are preparing for their big night: performing at a local club where an agent (a gruff, bluff McCallum) will be in the audience. It could be their first big break -- and will they tailor their acts to please him or will they find their comedy, as Eddie insists they should, in the truth?

Griffiths doesn't make things easy for himself. In real life, watching bad stand up is painful, embarrassing and vaguely masochistic. To actually write bad stand up and then have actors play it realistically is a peculiar talent and unnerving to watch.

These performers do it so well that you will cringe in your seat. The honor roll of pandering comedians -- who never met a stereotype they didn't like -- include Max Baker, David Lansbury, Allan Corduner, James Beecher and Jamie Harris. All are riveting in their desperation.

Only one of the aspiring comics, portrayed by Esparza, remains true to himself and his blistering, biting sense of humor. His scathing monologue alternately repulses and attracts the mild-mannered Eddie.

Esparza, eyes flashing and a permanent scowl smeared across his face, is one of those intense, magnetic performers. He used it to good advantage as the master of ceremonies in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of "Cabaret" and last summer as Georges Seurat in the Kennedy Center's production of "Sunday in the Park With George."

That wildness serves him well here. There's a fierce, edgy integrity to his work that echoes Griffiths' main theme. If you aren't true to yourself, whatever the cost, you are never going to be compelling on stage either.