Broadway veteran Matthew Gumley, 14, co-stars as Nick in the Two River Theater Company production of A THOUSAND CLOWNS.
By TOM CHESEK
It’s got a happy-go-lucky, nonconformist uncle. A whip-smart, precociously talented tween nephew. Put them together in a big-city bachelor pad, throw in a boss named Chuckles and a budding romance with an attractive social worker, and you’ve got well, if Hollywood got hold of it now, you’d have a recipe for disaster. Either that, or a beloved Charlie Sheen sitcom.
When cartoonist turned playwright Herb Gardner penned A Thousand Clowns in the early 1960s, he approached his first theatrical piece with a seriousness that was light years beyond the TV gag-writing of its willfully unemployed hero. With the late Jason Robards as leading man and champion, the play managed to nail that moment just before The Sixties really happened, when the Great Society came knocking at the door and a free spirit like Uncle Murray had to choose exactly which side of the Generation Gap he intended to be on.
Beginning in previews next week and continuing through February 20, the 1962 Broadway hit comes to Red Bank as the latest mainstage production from Two River Theater Company. The redbankgreen Drama Desk spoke to the show’s director (as well as two of the accomplished pros in the cast), in the countdown days before the February 5 opening.
Tony nominee Lou Liberatore makes his TRTC debut as Arnold.
Although he’s garnered major honors (for his many Off Broadway efforts and touring productions with The Acting Company), director Davis McCallum still spends an inordinate amount of time offering patient explanations of why he’s not TV actor David McCallum (better luck next time, fans of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s Ilya Kuryakin). This is the first formal team-up between the Brooklyn-based artist and Two River Theater, where a McCallum-directed touring production of the one man show Namaste Man appeared last October.
McCallum: I’ve been wanting to get together on a project with Two River Theater for several years, ever since (former TRTC artistic director) Jonathan Fox gave me a hard-hat tour of the building while it was still under construction. I remember standing out on what was going to be the stage of the Rechnitz auditorium and thinking, this is great; I could really enjoy doing this.
I’m of the opinion that A Thousand Clowns is an underrated masterpiece of the American theater. I see the play in relation to 1950s, 1960s novels like On the Road and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which you have the iconoclast as hero. In the character of Murray, you can hear somebody who’s emerging from the ’50s, who’s ready to tune in and drop out. He doesn’t want to be one of the zombies in suits. But the question is, how do we put aside our qualms about a guy who would willfully not get a job at the risk of losing his kid?
Michael Nathanson, who plays Murray here, is probably a younger actor than you’re used to seeing in this play, which is deliberate. There’s a tradition of Great Men of the Theater in their late 40s, early 50s doing this role curmudgeonly, Walter Matthau types but you have to remember that Herb Gardner was in his twenties when he wrote the play, and a middle-aged guy in the early 60s would have been part of the generation that fought in World War Two and Korea. Murray should really be somebody who came of age at a time when he didnt have to make that kind of sacrifice. That’s very important, psychologically, to the play.
A seasoned veteran of four major Broadway productions (The Addams Family, Beauty and the Beast, Elf and Mary Poppins) at the age of 14, Matthew Gumley can “play younger” (his character of nephew Nick is 12 in the script) while displaying a razor-sharp savvy that some might call “beyond his years.” The New York based performer makes his TRTC debut in a plum part, of which he’ll be claiming sole ownership for the run of the show.
Gumley: I see Nick as someone who’s been forced into the role of the adult in the household where Uncle Murray is the kid, the kind of free spirit that people didnt know what to think of back then. It was a big deal, I think, for the audience to sympathize with a character who doesn’t accept responsibility.
A lot of things about that era are interesting to me. It was a sort of modernized 1950s, not quite what people think of as the 60s. The audience has to sort of go back inside a time capsule to appreciate what happens in the show. And even though there are aspects of it that are tongue-in-cheek, I think that audiences are pleasantly surprised with this show. It’s not just a bunch of jokes and one-liners.
I’m being home-schooled this year, which is working out well for me I don’t want to have to get pulled out of class, so I’m taking five different academic subjects, all of them online, and each with a different teacher in Pennsylvania. When you’re being home schooled or tutored, you can wind up either very far ahead or very far behind other kids your age, but I’m doing fine. Nothing’s getting in the way of learning at my own pace.
A Tony nominee (for his Broadway co-starring turn alongside John Malkovich and Joan Allen in Lanford Wilson’s edgy play Burn This) and a part time resident of Monmouth County, Lou Liberatore makes his first appearance in a show at Two River in the role of Murrays agent (and older brother) Arthur. The actor whose recent flurry of activity included a first-ever TV pilot directing gig and a guest role on an upcoming episode of Nurse Jackie (“I’m a guy who leaves town to play New Yorkers”) will be joining fellow cast member Brad Heberlee in a talk about their own creative journeys as they related to the world of the play; a BeforePlay presentation that starts approximately 45 minutes prior to each performance.
Liberatore: Ive wanted to work at Two River for the longest time. Its a gorgeous theater, and I’m really excited to be here. The casting director, Janet Foster, is someone I’ve known for some time I call her ‘my angel’ because I got all four shows she set me up with! It’s a great group of people involved in this show we all get a kick out of watching Matthew, who’s such a serious, professional young actor, talk of things like ‘process’ and ‘motivation.’ We’re like, kid, where the hell do you get that stuff?
This is not a frivolous play by any means. It takes place over two days, so the sense of urgency is great one scene feeds the next; it propels Michael in his role as Murray.
The character I play, Arnold, represents the outside world he represents accountability. Hes a man with a structured family life, who works in a business thats chaotic. The whole tone of the play changes when he comes on. His argument with Murray is that you have to give in, join the rat race, if you want to be a father. But at the same time, you dont want to take away the spark that makes (Murray) so special.
A Thousand Clowns begins four nights of previews Tuesday, February 1; opens Saturday, Febraury 5, and runs through Sunday, February 20. Tickets are $35 – $61 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.