by Gordon Cox
The New Group's production of "Comedians" is close to impeccable. The acting's great. The set, a grimy replica of a classroom in a secondary school, is carefully observed and convincing. And the expert ensemble has been directed by Scott Elliott with the same keen eye for quotidian detail that he brought to the New Group's revivals of Mike Leigh plays (most recently, "Smelling A Rat").
All this, though, still isn't quite enough to make it clear why "Comedians" needed to be revived in the first place.
Trevor Griffiths' 1974 script, which was produced on Broadway in 1976, is sturdily written, to be sure, and it may well be the best possible version of a play that, while following a group of aspiring stand-up comics in Manchester, England, uncovers the anger and the fear behind a comedian's laughter. But the lessons, about moral integrity in show biz and about entertainment that feeds on inequity and hate, seem somewhat tamely depicted here in the age of Eminem. Some audience members, too, may begin to lose trust in a play that, in the process of exploring the hidden prejudices of humor, briefly brings on a lone, nonwhite character whose sole dramatic purpose is to provide a convenient excuse for getting on of the protagonists offstage.
That said, there's still pleasure to be had in watching the large cast bicker, rally, and clown around in their roles as the students in a night class for comics. The dynamic of the classroom pivots on the relationship between the teacher, a respected but under appreciated comedian played by Jim Dale, and his favorite student, a seething young man played by Raul Esparza.
Dale, the accomplished British actor now well-known as the voice of the "Harry Potter" audiobooks, has a supple way with physical vaudeville shtick, and he registers hope, disappointment and resignation with delicacy and precision. Esparza has the instant charisma of a star pupil, and his simmering performance is genuinely volatile, especially in the enraged, discomforting routine that is the climax of the second act. (Other standouts in the fine ensemble include the veteran David McCallum, slippery and smug as a talent scout, and Allan Corduner, gruff and desperate as a club owner making his own bid for the spotlight.)
The second act, in which we see the comedians try out their material at a small nearby club, features some impressively varied writing from Griffiths, and Esparza's routine is the only moment in which "Comedians" feels dangerous or unpredictable. Mostly, though, the play never feels compelling enough to warrant the assured and skillful revival the New Group has given it.