New York Times

O.K., Take 2 Jokes and Call Me in the Morning

January 16, 2003 By BEN BRANTLEY

One after another, they stumble and die before your eyes, sweaty corpses in a spotlight. Few spectacles are more painful for an audience than a stand-up comic who can't get a laugh. Yet Trevor Griffiths's 1975 play "Comedians," which has been given an intense and earnest revival by the New Group at the Beckett Theater, insists that you experience that pain again and again, as a succession of would-be professional comics try out their routines.

That not one of these funnymen is funny - even delivering jokes that, in other contexts, might be rewarded with at least a titter - means that the cast of "Comedians" is doing its job. Mr. Griffiths is asking you to consider coldly what you might normally laugh at and why. In the words of the play's sage-in-residence, a former stand-up artist turned teacher: "Comedy is medicine, not colored sweeties to rot their teeth with."

"Comedians," which opened last night under the direction of Scott Elliott, belongs squarely to the British school of theater as social medicine that flourished in the 1960's and 70's and lives on in the works of dramatists like David Hare. This examination of a night class in comedy in Manchester holds a mirror up to theatergoers and asks them to confront the sick souls therein.

As such plays can be, it is intelligent, daring and, in the long run, less abrasive than tedious, like a jittery lecture at high volume. This despite the presence of a talent-rich, hard-working ensemble led by Jim Dale, Raúl Esparza and David McCallum.

Watching the show, it is possible to imagine how the original Broadway production, which was directed by Mike Nichols and helped make a star of Jonathan Pryce, might have electrified and scalded audiences. At the same time, you are all too aware of how much time has passed since.

"Comedians" comes from an era in which all-male, testosterone-driven casts were popular in demonstrating man's petty inhumanity to man. (Remember "The Changing Room," "That Championship Season" or "Streamers"? David Mamet was still waiting in the wings.) In Mr. Griffiths's play, the men are mostly working-class fellows with Palladium dreams, assembled for a chance to audition for a jaded talent agent.

Acts I and III, set in a drearily institutional classroom (designed with merciless exactitude by Derek McLane), are devoted to preparation and post-mortem. Act II lets the students test their comic chops between bingo games in a seedy club.

Mr. Griffiths builds a hefty homiletic framework, with two characters who baldly represent the moral extremes to which the students might aspire: Eddie Waters (Mr. Dale), their teacher, who believes that comedy is meant to enlighten, and Bert Challenor (Mr. McCallum), the agent, for whom comedy is simply pandering.

Caught between them is a lineup of chraracters that both exploit and question the usual stereotypes: the bouncy Irishman (James Beecher); the ambitious Jew (Allan Corduner, who played Arthur Sullivan in "Topsy Turvy"); the heartier-than-thou fellow with the ailing wife (David Lansbury); two squabbling brothers (Max Baker and Jamie Harris).

Then there's the antagonistic, hyper Gethin Price (Mr. Esparza in the role created by Mr. Pryce), the bad boy of the class as well as the teacher's secret pet. It's in the confrontations between Waters and Price that Mr. Griffiths spells out his concerns most explicitly, in dialogue that veers frustratingly between the truly provocative and the groaningly conventional.

Mr. Elliott has made a fine specialty of British blue-collar ensemble plays, particularly those of Mike Leigh. His cast is accordingly at its best in the rough and tumble of the first act, as the characters tease and test one another in the classroom. The Freudian intersections of truth and jest, humor and hostility, emerge naturally from their combative rapport.

At the same time, Waters is set up as a Christ-like figure destined to be betrayed by his disciples. His gestures inflected with the ghosts of old music-hall routines, Mr. Dale gives a beautifully shaded performance as a man who has retired from comedy because he cares about it too much. Yet even this excellent actor can't quite put over the preachiness or the clichés of a speech like the following, which bring to mind Robin Williams or Kevin Kline playing inspirational mentors on film:

"When a joke bases itself upon a distortion - a stereotype perhaps - and gives the lie to the truth so as to win a laugh and stay in favor, we've moved away from a comic art and into the world of `entertainment' and slick success. You're better than that, damn you."

Confronted with a live audience and the assessing gaze of Mr. McCallum's Challenor, Waters's pupils opt for the slick success approach - all, that is, except Price, who takes the Lenny Bruce route of making everyone as uncomfortable as possible.

While the actors commit fully to being unfunnily funny, there's not much to distinguish the individual stand-up routines, which are all performed in a state of high anxiety amid dead silence. (Actually, the same device was used earlier to more stirring effect by John Osborne in "The Entertainer.") Nor does Price's confrontational act register as much fresher than the previous parade of weary ethnic jokes.

For "Comedians" to be more than a prickly period piece, it needs to transcend the very thing it condemns: trading in types rather than individuals. All the actors have their moments, especially Mr. McCallum and Mr. Lansbury, whose excessive heartiness hints at real despair. And there's definite chemistry between the ever-electric, eager-to-please Mr. Esparza (late of "Cabaret") and the more nuanced Mr. Dale.

Still neither actor disguises the scent of mold in their final showdown. True, the scene dares to ask the very big question of whether comedy is even possible after the Holocaust.

But it also features exchanges in which the younger man asks the older what happened to his anger and the older breathlessly concedes that his pupil was, in fact, brilliant. At such moments, "Comedians" feels less like an iconoclastic play of the 1970's than a much older kind of sentimental melodrama in which a veteran artist passes on the torch as violins swell in the background.


By Trevor Griffiths; directed by Scott Elliott; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Mimi O'Donnell; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Ken Travis. Executive producer, Geoffrey Rich; general manager, Jill Bowman; production supervisor, Peter R. Feuchtwanger; production stage manager, Valerie A. Peterson. Presented by the New Group, Mr. Elliott, artistic director; Mr. Rich, executive director; Ian Morgan, associate artistic director; Amanda Brandes, associate executive director. At the Samuel Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, Clinton.

WITH: William Duell (Caretaker), Raúl Esparza (Gethin Price), Max Baker (Phil Murray), David Lansbury (George McBrain), Allan Corduner (Sammy Samuels), James Beecher (Mick Connor), Jim Dale (Eddie Waters), Jamie Harris (Ged Murray), Ismail Bashey (Mr. Patel), David McCallum (Bert Challenor), Gordon Connell (Club Pianist) and Marcus Powell (Club Secretary).