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A Thousand Clowns

You got to know what day it is. You got to know what's the name of the game and what the rules are with nobody else telling you. You have to own your days and name them, each one of them, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you. And that ain't just for weekends.
--- Murray Burns, defending his not taking the job he needs to retain custody of his nephew.

If there were an award for most courageous actor, Tom Selleck would win it hands down. The popular star of the Magnum P.I. series is making his stage debut at age 50-something in a role that will have all old enough to remember comparing him to the late great Jason Robards (who starred in the 428-performance Broadway run in 1962 and three years later in the movie adaptation). As if Robards' tough to fill shoes were not sufficient challenge, Selleck is also sharing the limelight with Nicolas King, an adorable 10-year-old scene stealer with five years on stage under his belt.

The choice of Herb Gardner‘s forty-year-old A Thousand Clowns further ups the risk-taking ante. The play is big on quirky charm and quotable dialogue. Its eccentric dropout hero rode the 1960s wave of dropouts that accompanied the decade's social changes. The 2001 revival must rely on its quirks and quotability.

Fortunately Mr. Selleck brings a lot more to the stage of the Longacre than courage. He surmounts the stumbling blocks buoyed by his easy-going charm and commanding physical presence. If he does not quite capture the deep-seated eccentricity of the iconoclastic Murray Burns, his affable humor and sex appeal (even without a mustache) more than compensate for the less fully realized seriousness of a man desperately clinging to the wild possibilities most people leave behind with their teens. Here's how Murray sums up this possibility of endless fun and girls: "Isn't it great to find out how many Sandras there are? Like those little cars in the circus, this tiny red car comes out and putters around, suddenly its doors open and out come a thousand clowns. . . "

The actor is smart and comfortable enough with himself to step out of the spotlight and allow this to be as much an ensemble as a star vehicle. That's not to say that the playwright's own virgin effort would have sufficient legs to warrant a revival without a box office draw like Mr. Selleck at the top of the cast listing. Though slightly revised from the original, the basic premise remains intact, complete with its 60s cultural allusions (e.g. the eleven 50-cent movie houses that lined Forty-Second Street).

The plot pits Murray and his unconventional life style against the social service agency which threatens his guardianship of the 10-year-old nephew (Nicolas King) literally left on his doorstep by a sister who makes Murray seem like the a poster boy for William Whyte's Organization Man. As one look at Allen Moyer's artfully cluttered set makes clear Murray and his precocious nephew are quite the odd couple. His section of the one-room apartment resembles the home of an eclectically accummulative teenager. Hats, clocks, books and other paraphanelia are everywhere and the bed is unmade. The alcove that belongs to Nick, the "middle-aged kid", is an oasis of neatness. Odd or not, the arrangement suits both uncle and nephew just fine. It allows the boy freedom to try out different names and grow up in a relaxed (to put it mildly) atmosphere and Murray to enjoy the company of "the best straight man he ever had".

While the social workers who invade the Burns domain force Murray to reconsider his happily unemployed status, they are not villains. Albert (a wittily understated Bradford Cover), even though he declares Murray to be more an experience than a real person actually admires his spontaneity. His fresh-out-of-graduate school colleague and girl friend Sandra (Barbara Garrick -- more real and less preciously ditzy than Sandy Dennis from the original production), defects to Murray's camp (and bed). Though Selleck doesn't look his age he is a generation older than the thirty-ish hero Gardner envisioned, thus adding a May-December twist to the Sandra-Murray romance.

Murray's brother and agent Arnold (Robert LaPone) also isn't quite the stuffed shirt he seems to be. While he never explains why he makes a daily stop at his brother's apartment to drop off fresh fruit, Lapone's Arnold gives a touching and deservedly show stopping explanatory monologue about why he takes pride in being a conventional success. Mark Blum rounds out the non-villainous villains in Murray's life as Leo Herman the children's show star who, without Murray's scripts, fails to get even his own children to laugh at his routines.

John Rando's capable direction is evident in the overall quality of the performances though he should not have relied on Nicolas King's grandmother as the boy's voice coach. King is a terrific actor but his deftly delivered lines tend to get lost in the trip from his mouth to the audience's ears. Rando's snazzy scene change to Arnold's sleek office adds a nice touch but even the talented director and his team can't rescue the second act from sluggishness. The overall length -- 2 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions -- is likely to make all but the most devoted Selleck fans somewhat restless.

A Thousand Clowns
Written by Herb Gardner
Directed by John Rando

Cast: Tom Selleck (Murray Burns), Nicolas King (Nick Burns), Bradford Cover (Albert Amundson), Barbara Garrick (Sandra Markowitz), Robert LuPone (Arnold Burns) and Mark Blum (Leo Herman).
Set Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Design: Brian Macdevitt
Sound Desgn: Peter Fitzgerald
Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, including 2 intermissions
Longacre Theater, 220 W. 48th St. (Broadway/8th Ave), 212/239-6200
7/04/01-10/14/01; opening 7/11/01
Tue-Sat @ 8 pm, Wed & Sat @ 2 pm, Sun @ 3 pm $40-$77.50

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based 4/17 performance

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