The most memorable aspect of Funnyman is the back-story that inspired it – which is not a condemnation of this new play at the Northlight. The play itself is a fascinating exploration of the paradoxes of comedians, but the context presented in the play’s program is a case of fact shining brighter than fiction.
Playwright Bruce Graham blends the childhood of Buster Keaton with the adult struggles and accomplishments of Bert Lahr to create Chick Sherman (George Wendt), a comedy icon from vaudeville and the light-comedy Broadway era of Ethel Merman. By 1958, Chick is a caricature of his own act. “Comedy has changed,” explains his long-time agent Milt Karp (Tim Kazurinsky), as he contrives to place Chick onto the stage in a hip absurdist play.
Insert the parallels to Buster Keaton. Chick does not understand the play partly because is uneducated. He never attended school because his showbiz parents used him into their act from the time he was a baby. Keaton’s own parents went so far as to dress their five-year-old son in a suit and stick a cigar in his mouth to convince theater owners that he was a midget.
More fascinating, Chick’s switch to absurdist theater is inspired by Bert Lahr (known to me only as The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion) and his anti-typecasting placement in the original New York production of Waiting for Godot. If Funnyman is to be believed, Lahr’s comic timing and difficult past melded into a ground-breaking performance that left the audience in hysterics before crushing them with the play’s message of futility.
Thus, Graham explores the complexity of those who create comedy within a relatively heavy drama. Chick’s character is unable to fail an audience, but at home he is emotionally distant from his adult daughter Katherine (Amanda Drinkall). Chick understands that comedy must seem spontaneous, but he approaches that spontaneity through rigid standards and an egotism that leads to ranting at any director who tries to control his performance. The strengths of Funnyman are the exploration of the seriousness behind comedy.
The last time I saw George Wendt on stage was in 1997 playing Ivan in Art, and his extended monologue about the frustration of an engagement was the comedic highlight of the show—notably, audience members still called out “Norm” during his curtain call. In Funnyman Wendt is best when he is understated and emotionally distant from those who care for him.
Sadly, at the play’s critical climax, Bruce Graham fails both George Wendt and Funnyman, for the heart of the play lies the promise that Chick’s performance in the absurdist play is going to leave the audience breathless We see a 20-second glimpse of Chick’s performance in Lucy’s Kitchen (the play-within-the-play), but that glimpse equates to less than a I-Tunes preview of a potentially engrossing song. At Steppenwolf, the audience would have seen several minutes of Lucy’s Kitchen, which would have allowed Wendt to embody Chick at his finest moment. More absurdism might have left some in the audience scratching their heads, but at least the audience would get to decide about Chick’s greatness for themselves rather than being told that his triumph had just occurred behind a closed door.