By ROBERT FELDBERG
COMEDIANS: A play revival, presented by the New Group at the Samuel Beckett Theater, 410 W. 42nd St. Written by Trevor Griffiths. With Jim Dale, Raul Esparza, David Lansbury, and David McCallum. Directed by Scott Elliott. $50. (212) 279-4200.
Trevor Griffiths' 1974 play "Comedians," which opened in an entertaining revival Wednesday night at the Samuel Beckett Theater, succeeds despite problems that might have sunk a less canny drama.
Its main character, an angry young working-class Englishman, was a cliché even in the Seventies, and the rocky father-son relationship he develops with a teacher is predictable; you can guess early on that they'll each learn a thing or two from the other. There are several scenes that are unpersuasive, and some clunky play structuring.
Yet, the theatricality of "Comedians," and the sharp edge of this production, adroitly staged by Scott Elliott and acted by an all-male ensemble cast with vivid realism, makes it arresting from start until almost finish.
A famous, somewhat frayed retired comedian named Eddie Waters, played by Jim Dale with a gentle but strong sense of mission, is teaching an adult-education class in stand-up comedy at a school in Manchester.
His most interesting student is a young truck driver named Gethin Price. As vibrantly portrayed by Raul Esparza, a hot young actor who's had triumphs in shows as diverse as "Cabaret" and "Tic, Tic ... Boom!," Price sometimes seem about to explode. You can feel that comedy is his escape valve, as well as the means to express his anger.
The others in the disparate group of aspiring comedians are George (David Lansbury), a boisterous man of about 35 from Belfast; Mick (James Beecher), an older Irishman who works as a builder; Phil and Ged (Max Baker and Jamie Harris), a mismatched pair of brothers who perform an act together; and Sammy (Allan Corduner), a middle-aged Jewish club owner.
Waters is earnest to the point of pretentiousness in his belief in the redemptive power of comedy. (He tells his students their goal should not be to make people laugh, but to use laughter to make them think.) But the students all like and respect him, and he seems to have gotten through to them.
The fly in the ointment arrives in the person of Bert Challenor, an old rival of Waters' who's become an agent for a booking organization. He's come to see the aspiring comedians perform at a shabby local club, and perhaps offer some of them development contracts.
Nicely played by David McCallum with the brisk assurance of the thickheaded, Challenor has values opposite to Waters'. When the comics learn that he values quick laughs over substance, each has to decide whether to do the act he worked on with Waters or trash it in favor of fast, crude jokes.
It's farfetched that an agent would travel a long distance to see men who'd learned their craft in an adult-education class, and, in fact, the comedians seem too quick-witted and polished to have emerged from such an environment.
But the play's forcefulness allows it to push logic to one side, and it builds a head of steam as each man steps onstage to do his act. (Mention must also be made of the club's old pianist, portrayed by Gordon Connell, who plays hilariously stiff improvisations on "Downtown," "Yesterday," and "Winchester Cathedral.") Although we have a good idea of who'll stand fast and who'll compromise, the tension increases as the comedians - some of them almost begging for laughs - make the choices that will determine their futures, with the unpredictable, volcanic Price the last one up.
The low-road routines, full of desperate jokes that demean women and racial and ethnic groups, work best dramatically. The higher-minded ones are much more problematic. Two aren't in any way funny and, except for Price's routine, none offers anything worth thinking about.
With all that, by the time the men return to the classroom to await Challenor's verdict, there's a sense of expectancy at "Comedians" that any play would envy.
Robert Feldberg's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org