Newark Star Ledger

'Comedians' just doesn't stand up

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Newark Star-Ledger Staff

NEW YORK -- One of the magical things about the live theater is that every showing is unique.

Play and players remain the same, of course, but performances can vary considerably, and the collective response of each night's audience may well differ, too.

Sometimes a show really clicks. Other times it fizzles -- and perhaps that's what happened at the preview caught last week of "Comedians," which opened yesterday at the Theatre Row Complex.

British author Trevor Griffiths' 1974 play regarding a group of would-be stand-up comics was a success in his country and also won approving reviews in its 1976 Broadway premiere, although director Mike Nichols' production ran little more than four months.

A study in grubby realism, "Comedians" is staged for the often excellent The New Group by Scott Elliott, who usually does so well by Mike Leigh's not dissimilar working-class tales. Charismatic Jim Dale and an ever-intense Raul Esparza lead an ensemble of top-notch character actors.

Despite all those favorable elements, the production sputters and refuses to take off.

Set in provincial England, the drama regards a night school seminar in stand-up comedy taught by Eddie (Dale), a former music hall favorite. That night, the members of the class will showcase their individual acts at a local pub. A talent scout from London is arriving to watch them go through their paces.

Each of the play's three scenes happens in real time. The first is in the classroom as the characters nervously prepare to do their routines. The second observes the men actually performing their stuff before an audience. The final one is the sorting-out of conflicts and punctured dreams in the aftermath of their generally miserable experiences.

Even with its superabundance of jokes -- many of them purposefully bad -- "Comedians" is meant to be taken as sober drama, as this motley crew of blue-collar guys strives to make something better of their dead-end lives through funny business. In most cases, they fail.

Grounding Griffiths' melancholy piece with a correctly dingy setting by Derek McLane, Elliott cultivates detailed human-scale performances from his ensemble. Convincing as the kindly old pro, a warm, weary-eyed Dale counsels the tyro comics with subtle but genuine compassion for their inadequacies. As the most gifted but gonzo among the comedians, Esparza reveals a nasty madman streak in his soul that suggests Andy Kaufman at his inscrutable scariest.

Most vivid among the others, Allan Corduner portrays a Jewish jokester with a bland, airy manner that turns desperate with flop sweat when his act begins to falter. David McCallum is effectively icy as a talent-spotter who appears to have no sense of humor.

The remaining players are not as distinct, which may be one reason why "Comedians" couldn't achieve critical mass during that preview performance. Griffiths' drama is such a downer that it demands the most high-octane performances possible to make it go.