Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Symphony of a Thousand

May 19, 2009

Nick Robinson and Matthew Boston
Photo: Intiman Theater 2009

While in Seattle last weekend, I also swung by the Tony-award winning Intiman theater. Under the artistic direction of Bartlett Sher, who recently announced his final season with the organization through 2010, the Intiman has established an excellent track record of highly regarded stagings of American classics. The house will continue with more of this successful formula well into next year and continues in this vein throughout May and June of this year with a new production of Herb Gardner’s 1963 comedy A Thousand Clowns. Directed by Sari Ketter, the Intiman production looks fabulous. It’s detailed and smart with excellent pacing throughout. There are some genuine laughs in its rather genteel writing and the nearly three hour play is significantly engaging. The cast was excellent with Matthew Boston creating a believable and consistent Murray Burns, the eccentric uncle on the verge of losing his nephew to the state's child welfare agency. Even better, though, was Nick Robinson as his ward, Nick, who is both desperate to stay with his uncle but equally afraid of the sacrifices that may be necessary to do so. It can be tough for a young actor to manage a part this large in the company of very talented adults, but I found Robinson to be remarkably consistent and authentic throughout.

So here is the only question – why employ a brilliant cast just to revive such an underwhelming and minor play to begin with. Despite the strengths of this particular outing, A Thousand Clowns trades in mid-Century stereotypes and anxieties over such issues as the burgeoning child welfare system of the time and the changing roles of women in the workforce. It’s excessively mild and the watered down Harold and Maude-free-spirit advocacy seems quaint by this point. This is a minor play by virtually any standard and the primary conflicts between central characters in the plot often seem underdeveloped and imbued with dime store psychology. Take for example Murray’s preoccupation with eagle figurines. Even in 1962 I can’t imagine anyone not secretly smirking at such heavy-handed symbolism. I guess one could abstract certain implications about the American spirit from the play, but Gardner’s construct seems little more than a historical footnote. In fact, the whole thing seems to be fishing for a TV or movie adaptation which it would get just years later in a Oscar-nominated film version with Jason Robards. But while the play itself comes off as the dramatic equivalent of a Snuggle bear commercial, the production is highly professional and the performances alone would recommend a visit.


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