Posted: Wed., Jan. 15, 2003, 6:02pm PT


(Samuel Beckett Theater; 99 seats; $50) A New Group presentation of a play in two acts by Trevor Griffiths. Directed by Scott Elliott.

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


The agonizing experience of watching standup comics die the death onstage is meticulously re-created in Trevor Griffiths' "Comedians." The beads of sweat blooming on furrowed brows, the manic glints in the eyes, the furtive looks to left and right, scavenging desperately for a stray laugh to latch onto -- they're all here to be savored, if that's the word, and have been rendered with painful precision by Scott Elliott's cast in this typically pitch-perfect New Group revival of Griffiths' 1975 play. But even a host of top-notch character actors working at full tilt, led by a wonderfully delicate Jim Dale, can't paper over the seams of Griffiths' dramaturgy. Hailed at its premiere as a forceful addition to the post-Osborne school of British playwriting, a quarter-century on "Comedians" feels more than a little schematic. The painful scene in which the play's aspiring comics go down in flames at a Manchester rec room -- in between bouts of bingo, yet -- is bookended by scenes set in a dingy school room, designed with wince-inducing attention to detail by Derek McLane. The walls of this tired-looking space have been painted a lurid turquoise in a desperate, and vain, attempt to brighten the atmosphere. Layers of grime have quickly reasserted their rights.

In this drab architectural petri dish collect a variety of sad specimens looking for a spectacular escape from their working-class lives. They've just finished a night-school course in comedy, taught by the once-semi-renowned Eddie Waters (Dale), and tonight is their big chance to strut their stuff in front of a talent scout. The problem: That scout, Bert Challoner (a wonderfully dry David McCallum), holds views on the art of humor that are diametrically opposed to those of the lads' good-hearted teacher.

In the play's overextended opening scene, Waters spends much of the final lesson analyzing the dark impulses behind too much of the humor the boys toss around. Waters' favorite pupil, the hotheaded but smart Gethin Price, played with a tense physicality and an unsettling glower by Raul Esparza, tosses off a naughty limerick. Waters coolly dissects it, exposing it as a choice specimen of misogyny and fear of women's sexuality. "A joke that feeds on ignorance starves its audience," Waters says. "Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones . the best ones . illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with. We've got to make people laugh till they cry." He nearly brings the gang to tears, and to uncomfortable blows, when another exercise turns into a form of group therapy.

But when Challoner breezes into the room to give the boys the once-over and a bit of a pep talk, he throws the fellows for a loop by espousing a rather different view of the comedian's art: "Don't try to be deep. Keep it simple," he says briskly. "We're not missionaries. We're suppliers of laughter," he adds, thereby tossing the gang into a neatly manufactured moral quagmire: With just one opportunity for a chance at the big time, do they stick to their more searching, morally defensible material, or go for the lowest common denominator?

The answer to that question, predictable to begin with, is iterated at painful length when the guys shuffle onstage, one by one, at the social club. The amiable Irishman Connor, played with a light touch by James Beecher, takes the high road with his mild jokes about the differences between Irish and English Catholics, but the ambitious Jewish businessman Sammy Samuels (Allan Corduner) quickly abandons his autobiographical material and starts spewing forth one-liners marinated in prejudice and vulgarity: "Heard about the Irish lamp post? Pissed on a dog." In Corduner's unsettlingly good performance-within-a-performance, Sammy's desperation spreads across the stage and into the audience like an invisible oil slick. The enthusiastic Irishman George McBrain (effectively played with manic energy by David Lansbury) doesn't waste any time at all before diving into the muck: "There's this colored feller on his way to work," he barks with a grisly leer, waiting for the laugh that doesn't come.

In the play's final moments, after Challoner has doled out contracts only to the most crass performers, Gethin, the resident Angry Young Man, and his mentor square off over his subversively bilious routine. Gethin accuses Waters of going soft and losing his comic touch. "Maybe you lost your hate," he says bluntly.

The play itself, it seems, has lost some of its bite over the years. Its point-making seems blunt and repetitive, and Waters' final monologue, with its references to the Holocaust, comes across as shopworn and stagy, despite the gentle ministrations of Dale, who delivers it with lovely restraint.

A quarter-century ago, we lived in an age of gentler entertainment, when humiliation on national television was not a ratings-grabber -- or something large sectors of the population aspired to. In that more innocuous context, Griffiths' examination of how very unpretty comedy can be presumably cut deeper. Now it feels pretty tame. Back then, Gethin's odd routine, a macabre, postmodern riff on the hate fueled by the British class system, probably caused audiences to squirm at its strangeness. Now, in the twilight years of that much-maligned medium known as performance art, it too is a bit of a yawn.

Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Mimi O'Donnell; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Ken Travis; production stage manager, Valerie A. Peterson. Artistic director, Elliott. Opened Jan. 15, 2003. Reviewed Jan. 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.