Backstage Magazine
Off Broadway January 13, 2003

The Comedians

Reviewed By J.C. Miller

Theater:Samuel Beckett Theatre
Location:410 West 42nd St., NYC
Starts:January 15, 2003
Ends:February 23, 2003

"Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with."

--Eddie Waters, "The Comedians"

What is the point of comedy? Is it merely to distract us from the tedium of our lives and to reassure us by making us feel superior to others? Or is it to challenge us by presenting things we prefer not to think about? In Scott Elliott's superb revival of Trevor Griffiths' 1974 play "The Comedians," former comedian turned night-school teacher Eddie Waters struggles to show his students that the best comics don't go for the cheap laugh, but rather try to use humor to shed light on essential truths.

Although this may not sound like the premise for a funny show, it is. But the play is also moving and politically insightful. Set in working-class Manchester in the 1970s, the play unfolds with the arrival of a professional agent from London who presents the chance for money, success, and escape from a decaying city. Waters' motley assortment of aspiring comics must then decide whether they should follow their teacher's high-minded advice or sell out by catering to the lowest common denominator. The resulting comedy show at the local pub runs the gamut from painfully bad sexual and ethnic jokes, to a ventriloquist act gone awry, to a blistering attack on the English class system.

Tony Award winner Jim Dale, as Waters, offers a quietly powerful performance. Yet he also reveals a gift for physical comedy when demonstrating an act in front of his class. While the role's idealism and didactic function could easily be overplayed, Dale shows a welcome restraint. He makes you wish you had had him as a teacher. Raul Esparza, as Waters' favorite student, gives a fierce performance as a highly intelligent young man seething at the world around him. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, including skillful turns by David Lansbury as an Irishman who embraces Andrew Dice Clay-style gutter humor in his bid to succeed and by "Topsy Turvy" star Allan Corduner as a wannabe Borsht-Belt star.