Monday, October 05, 2015

By George, 'Funnyman' Earns Cheers for the Way Star Wendt Beyond the Norm -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a World Premiere play by Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 25

The sitcom Cheers still ranks among my five favorite television shows of all-time, and though I wasn't nearly as enamored with the spinoff Frasier, I'm certainly familiar with its primary cast and characters.

So there has been something kinda cool about seeing George Wendt, Rhea Perlman, Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth, John Mahoney, David Hyde Pierce and the late Roger Rees on theatrical stages, including a number of them at Skokie's Northlight Theatre, where Wendt currently stars in the world premiere of Funnyman.

While this may sound simply like a piece of personal trivia, the often dramatic direction each actor has taken after embodying a rather iconic comedic character pretty much parallels the thematic gist of Funnyman.

I doubt I was the only one who had an inherent urge to yell, "Norm!" when Wendt appeared onstage Saturday afternoon, although the compunction was somewhat quashed by the blond wig and bright red Buster Brown-type outfit he was sporting.

Photos by Michael Brosilow
Teamed with Tim Kazurinsky as ever-devoted talent agent Milt "Junior" Karp--the two were to star in The Odd Couple at Northlight in late 2012 until Wendt had to bow out for health reasons--Wendt plays Chick Sherman, a legendary comedic Broadway star now relegated to hamming it up in antacid commercials.

In his fourth straight world premiere piece for Northlight--including the sensational The Outgoing Tide with John Mahoney and the stellar Stella & Lou with Rhea Perlman--playwright Bruce Graham draws heavily on the lives of Bert Lahr, Buster Keaton and other comedy legends.

As supporting materials elucidated, Lahr--best known as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz--was a major Broadway musical-comedy star who, a bit past his career prime and seemingly "against type," starred in the 1956 Broadway premiere of Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece, "Waiting for Godot."

That Lahr clashed with the play's original director and had an ill-fated marriage to a young co-star who became beset with emotional difficulties (and bore him a child) lends itself to the Funnyman narrative that has Chick's agent Karp convincing him that starring in an avant garde, modernist play would be good for his career.

Chick's interactions with a snooty director (Steve Haggard) and flamboyant playwright (Rob Lindley) provide much humor--Wendt is still a formidable comedic presence--but it is his latent relationship with grown daughter Katharine (Amanda Drinkall) that forms the true heart of the play.

Now living with her father after years spent in boarding schools, Katharine is interested in rekindling a connection with Chick--which is notably what she calls him, rather than Dad--and learning about the mother she never knew.

Drinkall, appearing in her second Graham-penned Northlight world premiere of 2015--following White Guy on the Bus--is quite empathetic as Katharine attempts to crack Chick's somewhat ornery off-stage shell, turns frequently to Kazurinsky's Junior as a more attentive father figure and forms a fledgling relationship with her co-worker Nathan (Michael Perez), whose screenwriter parents knew Chick. (It isn't central to the play's storyline but Katharine works as an archivist at Carnegie Hall.)

When revealed late in Act 2, the reasons for Chick's reluctance to provide Katharine with details about her mother become rather understandable, exacerbated by what he has shared about abject cruelty he suffered at the hands of his stage mother of a mom. (Graham supposedly developed this aspect of Chick's backstory from the troubling showbiz childhood of Buster Keaton.)

Given my eternal affinity for Wendt's embodiment of Norm Peterson--I wonder what his pal Cliff Claven (John Ratzenberger) is up to these days--seeing him onstage, in my hometown no less, is always a hoot.

And while I don't know if Northlight Artistic Director--and the show's director--BJ Jones commissioned Graham to write Funnyman specifically as a vehicle for Wendt and Kazurinsky, it certainly adds resonance to the play's themes that both longtime comedy stars are seemingly content appearing in regional theater without overtly leveraging their past personas.

This isn't all that shocking as I had seen Wendt at Northlight in 2002 in a play called Rounding Third, then in 2007 on a National Tour of Twelve Angry Men that came to the Loop. He's also been in Art, Hairspray, Elf and Breakfast at Tiffany's on Broadway.

Part of Graham's purpose behind Funnyman (as conveyed in an interview in the program) is to amplify the respect skilled comedians--and comics, as the difference is delineated in the play--deserve, including the ability of many to deftly handle dramatic roles. 

So as with several of his old pals, it's nice to see--including quite literally--that for George Wendt a life in the theater, without the expectation of chugging beers or besmirching his unseen wife Vera, has apparently now become the Norm.

And it's to Graham's great credit that Funnyman ultimately doesn't succeed most for the way it recasts an old comic, but for how it makes his evolving relationships--with his daughter, his agent, his past, present and future--freshly relatable.

Cheers, indeed. 

1 comment:

Ken said...

I never knew that about Bert Lahr. Thanks!