New York Daily News, Jan. 20, 2003

Standing up for something

by Robert Dominguez

Brilliant ensemble acting highlights "Comedians," a blistering revival of Trevor Griffiths' mid-70's drama about British working-class stiffs seeking fame and fortune as stand-up comics.

The play has laughs, but it takes the subject of comedy seriously. Its subtext is the social and political change in 1970s Britain, which Griffiths touches on through the personalities and backgrounds of his disparate, desperate characters.

But more than anything, "Comedians" is about artistic integrity. It prophesied how yesterday's edgy stand-ups became today's toothless sitcom stars, asking whether a comic should base his material on truth, no matter how uncomfortable that makes his audience (think Lenny Bruce), or just go for the easy laugh.

Which, for most of the characters, means crude ethnic and sexual humor.

The proponent of truth-in-comedy model is Eddie Waters, played by Tony-winner Jim Dale ("Barnum"). He gives a strong performance as a washed-up comic teaching a night-school comedy class in Manchester.

His students, all men, see stand-up as a ticket out of their dead-end lives. But while Eddie tries to impart the notion that comedy should be a force for good ("A joke that feeds on ignorance starves its audience," he tells them), they don't necessarily listen.

The story follows the men from their final lesson to their first performance, in front of a hostile bingo-hall audience -- and a London agent (a fine David McCallum) scouting new talent.

Raul Esparza (most recently the Emcee in "Cabaret") stands out in the excellent cast as Gethin Price, Eddie's prize pupil and provocateur. As the other students hope to win over the agent with cheap laughs, Gethin presents a brutally unfunny yet brilliant performance piece aflame with rage at the British cast system.

The play's energy flags at the end, when Eddie launches into an overlong, static speech that reveals how the former funnyman lost his sense of humor. "Comedians" may not finish with much of a punch line, but it stills packs a punch.