The tears of a clown fall throughout Funnyman, the devastatingly good show business drama that opened at Circle Theatre on Friday. And as the final curtain approaches, those tears grow into an ocean that washes the audience in a wave of intense emotion.
It is the late 1950s and successful stage comic Chick Sherman (Randy Pearlman) is cashing in on television by doing commercials that require him to trot out his exuberant catchphrase, “Wowsa!, to express his joy and surprise at finding such an effective way to fight indigestion.
But the stage jobs seem to be drying up, so Sherman presses his agent, Milt “Junior” Karp (Robert Michael James), to find him more work. When Karp responds by coming up with a possibly radical change of direction for his client in the form of a new absurdist comedy that sounds very much like Waiting for Godot, however, Sherman balks at the idea. “Not funny,” he barks at Karp, using the phrase that he invokes as the ultimate damnation of any idea or person.
Sherman gradually warms to the idea after several battles with his agent, an artsy director (Eric Dobbins), the play’s Tennessee Williams-esque author, Victor La Plant (Jakie Cabe) and his daughter, Katherine Sherman (Melissa Rosenberg). As the interested parties debate Chick’s question of to be or not to be a more serious actor, we discover a great deal about the comic’s past, and watch Katherine begin a new chapter in her life as she develops a relationship with Nathan (Jacob Grant), one of her co-workers in the administrative offices of Carnegie Hall.
The only difficult thing about praising this fabulous production is deciding where to starting tossing the kudos first. Bruce Graham’s script is nothing short of brilliant. His dialogue is so sharp you could cut yourself on it, and the overall structure of the play is incredibly well-crafted. It is as consistently entertaining as it is gut wrenching. And his characters live and breathe so easily in the world he creates for them that it is almost startling.
Director Krista Scott copes with something here that could be her dream come true or her worst nightmare — a cast populated with a wonderful overabundance of talented players. But Scott harnesses all that power and keeps her troops marching in lockstep toward a common goal. She does it without ever allowing us to see the seams in the stunning tapestry she so artfully weaves. It is beautiful, and subtle, work.
The acting is about as universally strong as you are likely to see on a Fort Worth stage. Or maybe anywhere else, for that matter. Cabe does a bit of a caricature, but it is so consistent and droll that it works. James is solid as a rock in his part, providing a grounded presence around which the other characters orbit erratically. Rosenberg and Grant, who are both making their Circle Theatre debuts with this show, are endearing as the young couple trying to sort out the mysteries of their elders.
The show also features a sleek, cleverly serviceable set by Clare Floyd DeVries. And the costumes by Sarah Tonemah are sharp looking, and do a nice job of setting the time period.
But make no mistake about it — this show belongs to Pearlman.
The performance he turns in as the tortured comic is quite simply one of the best acting jobs I have ever seen on any stage. It is the type of portrayal that you feel on the back of your neck and in the pit of your stomach. Pearlman so thoroughly internalizes his role that you do not find his character in the speeches and movements, but rather emerging from his eyes, where the pain of a life of eternal struggle is so evident. It is an amazing thing to witness, and it hits you like a freight train.
So do not miss this gorgeously honed production, in which all the planets in the Fort Worth theater solar system align. This is not only a great show. It is one we may look back on as something of a historic turning point, where the past, present and future of our theater scene were all on display in one magic moment in a theater that so recently suffered through the death of its beloved founder, Rose Pearson. “Wowsa!” doesn’t even begin to describe it.