As with all cliches, there is more than a little truth to the notion that while comics make others laugh they themselves often are crying on the inside. Consider Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and John Belushi, to name just a few.
And then there’s the case of Chick Sherman, the central character in Bruce Graham’s play “Funnyman,” now receiving its world premiere at Northlight Theatre, where George Wendt (the actor who despite a list of impressive credits will forever be known as Norm Peterson, the indefatigable regular on “Cheers”) is playing the title role.
Set in New York in 1959 — by which time vaudeville was incontrovertibly dead, even if TV variety shows were still the rage — “Funnyman” is the story of a comic whose style and career are on the wane. It is up to his manager and longtime best friend, Milt “Junior” Karp (Tim Kazurinsky, ideal as the straight man full of suppressed anxiety), to coerce him into reinventing himself by means of a foray into the trendy bohemian-intellectual world of Off Broadway and the new taste for absurdist drama.
When: Through Oct. 18
Where: Northlight Theater,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $25 – $79
Info: (847) 673-6300;
Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission
Chick perceives this as quite a come-down. A child star on the vaudeville circuit (much in the tradition of Buster Keaton, a victim of rough-house treatment that today would be considered child abuse), he went on to headline in the Follies and was a hit in London. Now he is relegated to making popular commercials for an antacid in which he dresses up like a fat kid in knickers and proclaims his trademark “Wowza!”
Nevertheless, much like Bert Lahr, that Cowardly Lion and vaudeville star who agreed to star in the U.S. premiere of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Chick is cajoled into starring in a play called “In Lucy’s Kitchen,” the work of Victor LaPlant (Rob Lindley), a gay Southern writer with a Tennessee Williams air about him, that is to be directed by Matthew Baroni (Steve Haggard), a self-satisfied, Yale-educated young darling of the avant-garde set.
The idea is that Chick can be “rediscovered” as the fabled comic with the surprisingly serious dramatic chops. The problem is that Graham’s play never convinces you of Chick’s great gifts as a “funnyman.” We see him when he is already dated as a performer, and when, offstage, he is continually sullen and depressed.
Other aspects of the play are more intriguing. For starters there is the bond between Chick and Milt — funny in its “Odd Couple” argumentativeness, but rooted in the fact that the real bond here is built on personal tragedies. Best of all, there is the play’s deeply troubled father-daughter relationship.
Chick’s daughter, Katherine (the ever alluring Amanda Drinkall), lives with her dad and is stubbornly devoted to him. But while he has always communicated easily with his audience, he has lacked all ability to connect in any satisfying way as a parent. After the death, at 24, of his beloved wife, a chorus dancer, Chick sent Katherine off to an elite boarding school. And in the intervening years she has been unable to pry out much of anything from him about who her mother was, and what happened to her.
Now, as an attractive young woman with a job as an archivist at Carnegie Hall, Katherine is determined to learn more, and to forge some sort of emotional link with her dad, even though he is not up to the challenge. At the same time, in some of the more delightful, winningly subsidiary scenes in the play, she becomes involved with her co-worker, Nathan Wise (a most engaging Michael Perez), a witty neurotic whose parents also were distracted — not by show biz, but by their extreme leftist politics.
Graham, who has had three previous plays debut at Northlight under Jones’ direction (“The Outgoing Tide,” “Stella & Lou” and “White Guy on the Bus”), knows how to structure a play, almost to a fault. But things seem overly contrived here. And while Wendt works his way through a breakdown/breakthrough with skill, Graham hasn’t been able to supply Chick with enough of a funny “outside” to make his transformation seem as formidable as it must.