The idea of grown men coming to terms with adulthood is a common theme in today's entertainment world. Whether it's Don Draper trying to escape with a beatnik and a bonus check, Charles Bukowski seeking asylum in a bottle or Adam Sandler's entire film career, men trying to avoid their responsibilities remains a highly entertaining thread in our cultural mythology.
"A Thousand Clowns," centers around Murray Burns, an unemployed comedy writer in 1960s Manhattan trying to avoid as much responsibility as possible. After his sister left her son at his apartment some years ago, Murray has become the sole custodian of 12-year-old Nick. The state custody board takes an interest in their living arrangement and Murray must grow up fast or lose his nephew.
Scott Wichmann stars as Murray, and brings a sense of both whimsy and selfishness to his character. Wichmann's comedic chops are on full display as he jokes his way through his scenes. Eric Brenner plays Nick, and is made up to look like Ralphie from "A Christmas Story" — fitting, since playwright Herb Gardner allegedly modeled the character on the Christmas movie's author and narrator, Jean Shepherd. Thankfully Brenner's proto-Woody Allen is awkwardly charming instead of being overly cutesy.
Aly Wepplo turns in a masterful performance as Sandra, a counselor with the child welfare board. In scenes such as Sandra's breakdown and subsequent refuge in a closet, Wepplo's timing turns the scene to comedic gold. Co-stars include the capable David Janeski as the dorky child welfare board agent Albert; John Moon as Murray's responsible brother Arnold; and Jeff Clevenger as Murray's worrisome former employer Leo.
The work of director Steve Perigard is fine overall, but there are some odd blocking decisions. Actors frequently upstage each other and turn their backs on the audience at pivotal moments in the show. When Nick decides what name he should go by as a grown-up, the audience can't see Murray's reaction because Wichmann is facing the wrong way.
Terrie Powers' set highlights the bachelor pad in all its glory. The set is so realistic it even appears to have individual fake bricks in the alley through the window. Derek Dumais' sound captures both the noise of the New York subway and the romper-room bellow of a kid's TV show.
The show's problem is its script, which doesn't tie its ending together well at all. The characters forgive each other without explanation, conflicts are easily resolved and the play takes a 15 minute detour at the end for no reason. Murray's former employer Leo shows up like Tom Sawyer in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to waste 15 needless minutes chewing scenery. Jeff Clevenger's excellent performance can't justify it.
In the end the production can't overcome the script. While Barksdale's production is entertaining and quite funny, it lacks the balance of a solid plot. S
Barksdale Theatre's "A Thousand Clowns" is playing at Hanover Tavern through April 23. Tickets are $19-38. For information call 282-2620 or visit barkdalerichmond.org.