Fort Worth — There’s an old saying in show business: “Dying is easy. Comedy, that’s hard.” Circle Theatre’s regional premiere of Bruce Graham’s Funnyman is proof positive. Director Krista Scott builds the pressure right up to performer Randy Pearlman’s final monologue that explains the pains behind his title character’s comic genius.
Pearlman’s Chick Sherman is reminiscent of a taciturn Jackie Gleason. But the old trope of the dichotomy between the onstage/offstage personas doesn’t seem to cover the depths of his pathos. Half of the plot is fueled by his adult daughter’s attempt to bridge the gap between the two by uncovering their murky past. Melissa Rosenberg plays Katherine Sherman with a matter-of-fact drive. Her co-worker, Nathan Wise (Jacob Grant) provides welcome relief of both the comic and romantic kind with Grant’s charisma liberally inserting needed chemistry and ease.
While Katherine has Nathan to temper her obsession, Chick’s aid-de-comedy is his long-suffering manager Milt “Junior” Karp. Robert Michael James plays the archetypal right hand man who can arrange the contracts and deliver a sandwich to first day’s rehearsal. He keeps Junior’s nobility in tact, weathering Chick’s tantrums, demands and doubts. It’s as lovely a relationship as the young lovers’.
Chick’s career seems to have stalled at indigestion commercials when he’s offered a role written by an avant-garde playwright (Jakie Cabe) with an equally avant-garde director (Eric Dobbins). The scenario is inspired by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with cowardly lion, Bert Lahr, as one of the tragic comic tramps. Dobbins keeps the difficult beret-wearing director well within reality. Cabe, alternately, lifts the show to a new level with his fluid but not necessarily flamboyant Tennessee Williams take-off, Victor La Plant. He’s a welcome Southern breeze.
Clare Floyd DeVries handles the shows need for showing Chick’s black-and-white commercials by keeping her set monochromatic and projecting them on one of the squares set into a Mondrian-inspired upstage screen. There’s a subtle statement in reducing that artist’s vibrant palate to grey. It’s as if Chick’s joyless existence dampens everything it touches. Costume designer Sarah Tonemah accordingly keeps the clothing colors unsaturated while lighting designer John Leach moves us from location to location unobtrusively.
The main reason to the see the show comes at the very end. Pearlman’s Chick finally explains to his daughter the circumstances of their estrangement. It’s as powerful a monologue as you’ll see this year, sincerely delivered and yet masterfully shaped. He does the one thing harder than comedy.