by Adam Feldman

Few displays are as mortifying to an audience as the spectacle of the dying comedian. By dying, of course, I mean failing to amuse--although if it were possible to actually die of embarrassment, the ranks of our stand-up comics would be cruelly thinned. The second act of Trevor Griffith's Comedians is largely given over to this unhappy display, as one would-be comic after another struggles to restrain the flop sweat that itches on his brow. Poor lads, the game is loaded against them, for the jokes that Griffiths has given them are not only unfunny, but also racist, heartless, and crude. Some of the humor, moreover, refers specifically to life in Manchester in the 1970s. If these routines were deliberately stale when Griffiths wrote them, they all but fester now.

Comedians made its Broadway debut in 1975, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Milo O'Shea and Jonathan Pryce. I did not see that production, so I cannot say whether it got any laughs. In any event, Scott Elliott's revival at Samuel Beckett Theatre, with Jim Dale and Raúl Esparza, is a deadly serious affair, a play about humor that actively refuses to be funny. Griffiths, who co-wrote the screenplay for Warren Beatty's Reds, seems interested in comedy mainly as a metaphor for politics, and he has written the play like a vegetarian leading a tour of the sausage factory.