STOCKBRIDGE – In our rush to celebrate artistry we sometimes undervalue craftsmanship.
Take Herb Gardner, for instance. His name would not leap to mind if you were compiling a list of greatest American playwrights.
But Gardner’s deeply satisfying, bracingly idiosyncratic “A Thousand Clowns,’’ now at Berkshire Theatre Group under the direction of Kyle Fabel, reminds us how much pure pleasure can be delivered by a comic craftsman working at the top of his game.
And, in this case, at the beginning of his career: Gardner, who died in 2003, was still in his 20s when “A Thousand Clowns’’ premiered on Broadway half a century ago. The cast included Jason Robards as Murray Burns, an unemployed children’s TV show writer who wages an exuberant daily rebellion against the pressure to conform — and this was before the ’60s morphed into The Sixties and nonconformists became a dime a dozen.
Robards also starred as Murray in the 1965 film version of “A Thousand Clowns,’’ leaving an indelible stamp on the role. Therein lies the challenge for CJ Wilson, who plays Murray in the BTG production and must compete with the memory of Robards.
Wilson captures Murray’s matter-of-fact misanthropy but not his spontaneity and aura of free-spirited whimsicality. He’s a fine actor, but his Murray just doesn’t come across as a natural, dyed-in-the-wool eccentric. In the film, when Robards’s Murray picks up a ringing telephone and barks, “Is this someone with good news or money? No? Good-bye,’’ then immediately hangs up, the scene is both a masterful mini-aria and a capsule summary of Murray’s worldview. But Wilson rushes through the moment, and it barely registers.
The play itself is a beauty, a thing of finely tuned wit and heart that refuses to slide into sentimentality, a celebration of individuality and a lament for its passing. Along the way, “A Thousand Clowns’’ captures the flavor of New York and the lower echelons of the TV industry during that period of history.
Rachel Bay Jones, whose portrayal of a lovable pooch in BTG’s production of A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia’’ was one of the theatrical joys of 2011, works wonders again as a social worker named Sandra Markowitz who finds her interest in Murray rapidly escalating from professional to personal.
Her Sandra comes across as considerably more quirky than Murray, beginning with an extended bout of fierce weeping that Jones turns into a comedic tour de force.
The real find of this production is 14-year-old Russell Posner, who plays Nick, Murray’s nephew, abandoned by his mother and left in her brother’s care. Sure, Posner essentially mimics the nasal delivery and amusingly formal diction Barry Gordon employed as Nick in the film version, but who cares? Posner is flat-out terrific — and he does a pretty good Peter Lorre impression, too.
A precursor of Manny on ABC’s “Modern Family,’’ Nick is a “middle-aged kid,’’ in his uncle’s words. Then again, somebody has to be the grownup in the one-room apartment they share, and Murray fiercely resists that role. (With its unmade bed and a profusion of knicknacks that includes a golden eagle atop a shelf, the cluttered apartment, designed by Randall Parsons, looks like a physical representation of Murray’s magpie mind.)
To the dismay of his brother and agent Arnold (Andrew Polk), Murray has quit his job as chief writer for a kids’ TV show starring a character named Chuckles the Chipmunk. He now spends his days doing as he pleases: going to the movies, taking Nick on jaunts to the Statue of Liberty, strolling down Park Avenue and hollering up at the deluxe apartment houses, “Rich people, I want to see you all out on the street for volleyball! Let’s snap it up!’’
Murray and Nick have a tight bond, nicely conveyed in a scene of Wilson and Posner strumming ukuleles while they sing “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.’’ It’s clear they share a similar sense of humor and an appetite for adventure. But a child-welfare agency is poised to take Nick away from Murray, deeming the environment unsuitable for a child.
The heavy in this scenario (though there really are no bad guys in “A Thousand Clowns’’) is Albert, Sandra’s fellow caseworker and boyfriend, played with pitch-perfect prissiness and a trace of poignancy by James Barry. After intermission, when “A Thousand Clowns’’ begins to lose steam, Jordan Gelber delivers a jolt of electricity to the production, bursting onto the stage as Leo Herman, also known as Chuckles the Chipmunk, determined to talk Murray into returning to work for him.
With his massively swollen ego and his equally huge welter of insecurity and self-loathing, Leo is like a live-action version of Krusty the clown, from “The Simpsons.’’ Of course, Herb Gardner created Leo decades before Krusty came along — just one of the reasons “A Thousand Clowns’’ simultaneously seems to be very much of, and ahead of, its time.