New York Times, 1/26/03

Finding Humor in Pain Can Be Just That: A Pain


THE playwright Trevor Griffiths keeps a quotation on the wall of his home in Yorkshire, England, a piece of wisdom from Mark Twain about what makes people laugh: "There is," it reads, "no comedy in heaven."

The quote, Mr. Griffiths says, goes a long way toward explaining why his play "Comedians" can be, well, so unfunny at times. And that, the playwright says, is the point.

"The secret source of humor is not happiness; it is pain," Mr. Griffiths, 67, said recently, paraphrasing another Twain quote. "You can't watch a comedian like Richard Pryor, in his great days, without knowing that, as you're cracking with laughter, you're feeling his pain of living."

That pain is felt acutely by the principal characters in "Comedians," six would-be comics in Manchester, England, trying to break out of their lives with the help of a beneficent comedy teacher named Eddie Waters. In the New Group revival of the play now at the Samuel Beckett Theater, the part is played by Jim Dale.

Like Mr. Griffiths, Eddie Waters believes that the best comedy comes from a place of truth and pain, a concept that is eventually rejected by all of his students except one, an archetypal angry young man named Gethin Price (Raúl Esparza) toward whom Waters feels a fatherly tug. On the other side of the argument is a talent agent, Bert Challenor (David McCallum), who believes that comedy should pander to whatever makes people laugh.

"I'm not looking for philosophers," Challenor says. "I'm looking for comics."

As this suggests, "Comedians," which opened on Broadway in 1976, is packed with some weighty themes, including the loss of one's dreams and the historical price of hatred. Mr. Griffiths takes on the racist and sexist humor that pervaded parts of British popular culture at the time — and still does in some places — as exemplified by this jab delivered by an ambitious and shameless comedian named Sammy Samuels (Allan Corduner): "Hear about the Irish cargo ship carrying yo-yos?" he asks. "Sank 44 times."

Getting across these ideas and yet not delivering a lecture is one of the play's biggest directorial challenges. Scott Elliott, the artistic director of the New Group, who has made a specialty of directing blue-collar British drama (including Mike Leigh's "Ecstasy" and Ayub Khan-Din's "East Is East"), said he was less worried about the audience getting the jokes than understanding the relationship between Waters and his students. (In addition to Mr. Esparza and Mr. Corduner, they include Jamie Harris, David Lansbury, Max Baker and James Beecher. William Duell appears as the crotchety janitor.)

"I think it's about Eddie and the boys," said Mr. Elliott, 39. "It's definitely a story about Eddie Waters, and where he finds himself at the end of his life. There's something really tender at the center of it, because it essentially mirrors the relationship that all boys have with a father figure."

As for the play's sometimes self-righteous tone, Mr. Elliott said he embraced it. "I've yet to do a play that doesn't have a preachy moment," he said. "They're writers, and writers always preach at some point during a play. If you strip that away, what is there?"

Mr. Elliott said he had originally been drawn to "Comedians" not because of its subject matter but because of the sex of its characters; he had just directed a female cast (the Roundabout Theater Company production of "The Women" last summer), and wanted to do a play with all men.

"I thought it would be an interesting psychological experiment," he said. He was also intrigued by what he called "the cleansing nature of cruelty and cruel humor."

"We always attack what we fear, and a lot of times we attack with humor," he said. "So if you look at what these characters are joking about, often not in a very funny way, you understand exactly what scares them, whether it's old age or women."

Mr. Elliott's first move was to find his Eddie, a process, he said, that began and ended with Mr. Dale.

For his part, Mr. Dale, 67, said he was fascinated by the strange connections between Eddie's life and his own. Like Eddie, Mr. Dale worked as a stand-up comic in England before abandoning the field for less grueling work. He also entertained troops stationed in Europe during the 1950's, an experience that parallels a story recounted by Eddie in the final act of the play.

"I know the places that Eddie is talking about because I played them," Mr. Dale said. "I know how rough it can be."

He also knew the script, having played the role of Gethin Price in a 1977 production of "Comedians" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

"It's really two periods in the same life," Mr. Dale said. "Gethin is the angry one, the side that sees something and wants to stomp it out of existence. And Eddie is the one that's lived that, and experienced terrible things, and sees beauty in things instead."

To Mr. Dale, Gethin is less a comic than "the first performance artist" whose personality is truly unveiled in the play's second act, when Gethin appears onstage for a nightclub routine in ghoulish makeup with a pair of grotesque mannequins, representing the upper classes. Before long, blood is spilled. In short, Bill Cosby it ain't.

The man who is responsible for pulling off Gethin's bizarre routine, Mr. Esparza, 32, said that while the act was part performance art, he looked to another mid-1970's artistic movement for his inspiration for Gethin: punk rock.

"I was reading about Johnny Rotten, who said basically, `I was a miserable sod and I wanted everyone to be as miserable as I was,' " Mr. Esparza said. "Gethin is willing to do whatever it takes to make people as uncomfortable in the audience as he is in his life."

Mr. Esparza said he also looked at comics like Andy Kaufman, who sometimes walked the line between comedy and aggression toward the audience.

"I think of his act as a clown routine gone terribly wrong," Mr. Esparza said, "something like `When Good Clowns Go Bad.' "

That level of intensity, however, can sometimes backfire. On the night before the opening, Mr. Esparza was finishing the scene in which he performs in the club when he noticed a middle-aged man in the audience staring at him blank-faced.

In character, Mr. Esparza asked him in an angry tone if he had a problem. The man responded, "Yes," and to the surprise of everyone in the cast — especially Mr. Esparza — stepped onto the stage.

The audience giggled as the two stared at each other. Mr. Esparza then said his final line as he stepped through the curtain at the back of the stage and exited. The audience member returned to his seat, but not before Mr. Esparza had learned a lesson.

"I didn't know if he was going to take the mike or hit me," Mr. Esparza said. "I obviously went too far."

That sort of moment — when the audience doesn't know whether to titter or become silent — is what Mr. Griffiths said he wanted to accomplish with "Comedians."

"There's a quote from Kafka's notebooks, that writing must be an ice pick to pierce the frozen tundra of the heart," Mr. Griffiths said. "I think Gethin Price has got that notion, that comedy is an ice pick to pierce the frozen tundra of the heart. Now, I don't know if that always works, but it's a fascinating thing to try."