A CurtainUp Review


A real comedian-- that's a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. . . But when a joke bases itself upon a distortion -- a 'stereotype' perhaps -- and give the lie to the truth so as to win a laugh and stay in favor, we've moved away from comic art and into the world of 'entertainment' and slick success
--- Eddie Waters, the teacher who believes in comedy as art even though he has abandoned his own career as a comedian.

Four golden rules. One: All audiences are thick, collectively, but it's a bad comedian who lets 'em know it. Two: Two laughs are better than one. Always. Three: You don't have to love the people but the people have to love you. Four: Sell yourself.
--- Bert Challenor, the agent for whom entertainment counts more than art.

Jim Dale and David McCallum (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Trevor Giffiths' 1970s story about a group of Manchester students in an adult education class before, during and after auditioning their acts for a London agent is exactly the sort of play on which the New Group has built its reputation. Like last fall's Smelling a Rat, it's directed by the company's artistic director Scott Elliott. Falling into the late "angry young man" school of British theater, the play blends abrasiveness and desperate hopefulness and pits the principles of integrity in comedy -- and by extension in life -- expounded by Eddie Waters (Jim Dale), the group's teacher against the market place practicality of Bert Challenor (David McCallum), the agent Waters has invited to see their work. audition.

As it was when first staged, Comedians, is a showcase for the actors. While the tour-de-force roles are those of Eddie Waters, the teacher, and Gethin Price (Raoul Esparza) the class rebel, each member of the all-male cast gets his own star turn. These opportunities are fully realized by all.

Jim Dale, currently best known for the 127 character voices in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire audio book, gives a beautifully understated and consistently moving performance that holds our attention even during the overlong monologue about how his experience during World War II made him unable to see anything funny enough to continue his promising career as a cutting edge comedian. Raoul Esparza's Gethin generates the same electricity sparked during his stint as the Emcee in Cabaret. I never saw Jonathan Pryce's Gethin in the Tony-award winning 1975 production helmed by Mike Nichols or the 1977 Los Angeles production in which Jim Dale played the angry young comedian, but it's safe to say that Esparza, especially during the startling act that culminates the play's audition scene, is good enough to defy comparisons by anyone who did.

The other well delineated, students include two with ethnic-oriented acts -- Allan Corduner, whom you may remember as Sir Arthur Sullivan in the film Topsy Turvy, is terrific as Sammy Samuels who is advised by Challenor to ditch the Jewish part of his act because "What's a Jew nowadays, eh? " James Beecher is also effective as Mick Connor who gets pretty much the same advice. Still it's Samuels and David Lansbury's George McBrain who are most adept at making their auditions conform to Challenor's rule about giving people what they want, who win the opportunity to use their comedy as a means to help them escape from their dead-end Manchester lives. As for Gethin's shocking but brilliant act, Challenor, not surprisingly, finds it "repulsive."

Two non-matriculated characters who add some welcome light touches are the caretaker (William Duell) and Mr. Patel (Ismail Bashey) and Indian who has come to the school in search of an English course. Despite the program listing of a dialect coach (Stephen Gabis) Patel's accent is not very consistent.

Director Elliot wisely moves us through the comedians' cringe-inducing efforts to please the visiting agent at high speed. He also allows Mr. McCullum to rush a bit too fast through his bravura critique scene. As I recall, that scene from a production without a single name actor seen a couple of years ago at La Mama, the audition post-mortems were slower paced and made a stronger impression. That production also benefited from its environmental staging in La Mama's club, though the 100-seat Beckett Theater suits the play very well. Derek McLane and the rest of the designers have done a good job of creating the required seedy school room and Bingo playing club atmosphere -- the latter also given a boost by Gordon Connell as the club pianist..

All in all, seeing all these fine actors in a play that retains its punch, makes this one of the more interesting Off-Broadway offerings available to serious theater goers. The company's concluding productions sound equally promising and mark a promising collaboration between this and other small companies. Avenue Q, a musical with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and a book by Jeff Whitty will be coproduced with and at the Vineyard Theatre on Union Square. The Women of Lockerby, a drama by Deborah Brevoort and starring Judith Ivey and Dennis Boutsikaria, is a co-production with Women's Project & Production to be staged at The Theatre @ St. Clements.

Now that we have this revival and a new play, Take Me Out, with sizeable all-male casts, it would be nice to see a new play, which like The Women, keeps the men off stage and shines the limelight on half a dozen or more actresses of various ages.

Written by Trevor Griffiths
Directed by Scott Elliott.
Cast: Other cast members: Max Baker (Phil Murray), Ismail Bashey (Mr. Patel), James Beecher (Mick Connor), Allan Corduner (Sammy Samuels), Jim Dale (Eddie Waters), William Duell (Caretaker), Raoul Esparza (Gethin Price), Jamie Harris (Ged Murray), David Lansbury (George McBrain), David McCallum (Bert Challenor), Gordon Connell (Club Pianist), Marcus Powell (Club Secretary).
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Sound Design: Ken Travis
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Running time: Approximately 2 and a half hours, including intermission
Samuel Beckett Theater , 410 W 2nd St 212-279-4200 (after 2/05--at the Acorn, same address). New Group web site.
1/03/03-2/23/03; opening 1/15/03.
Tues-Sat at 8pm, Matinees on Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 3pm -- $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 10th press preview.