Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
"Comedians" is a serious drama on the theme of comedy as tragedy. David Chambers' staging of the play, which opened a six-week run Wednesday at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, is every bit as good as Mike Nichols' Broadway version of last season. It is firmly conceived and finely acted.
This is something of an achievement, because the setting of Manchester, England, and author Trevor Griffiths' characters have no exact American counterparts.
After the Broadway version had closed, Nichols said he thought too late of how it should have been presented in America. The setting, he felt, would be more meaningful in a Harlem lodge, in a place where men, despairing of improving their lot, might actually take classroom courses to develop comedic skills as a way to fame and fortune.
For while America has its own class structure, it is quite different from what exists in England's old industrial cities. Griffiths' characters, all men, have dull jobs and hopeless futures. Their spare time often is spent in working-class clubs and in school rooms where adult education classes relieve monotomy and, for some, inspire hope.
Eddie Waters, in his youth an admired comedian, runs such a class, and on this particular evening its six members are preparing to present their self-created "acts" between bingo games in a club. Waters has lectured seriously about the inner impulses of humor, and one of his students, Gethin Price, has caught Waters' point. During their amateur hour they are judged by Bert Challenor, a veteran and still-working comic for whom Waters has expressed artistic contempt.
Challenor's attitude prompts some of the men to change their material to the more obvious jokes they suspect will please him. Their second-act audition scene, revealing their raw nerves, is climaxed by individualist Price, who presents a macabre but original sketch.
Generally contemptuous and in a hurry, Challenor offers contracts - flimsy ones, you can bet - to the two men who've presented the dirtiest jokes and shows his jealous rage when he condemns Price's originality. Waters recognizes the lad's innate quality but warns him that such sensitivity may cost him a career.
Griffiths actually is writing about the hopelessness of humor as a palliative in a sick world. He is concerned with the difference between true comedians and sleazy comics and scorns Challenor's theory that "a comic can lead an audience by the nose - so long as it's where they're going."
The play's failing lies in Griffiths' attitude about comedy, which he presents either as dirty jokes or black humor. He fails to depict comedy as absurdity run riot, a large area of comedy to omit. The greatest comedians I have watched, and all of them most serious about their art, observed life's upside down qualities, its zaniness.
Ed Wynn, Beatrice Lillie, Fannie Brice, the Marx Brothers, Bobby Clark, Chaplin and the Soviet Union's Popov were comedians of genius because they caught and held, like butterfly wings, the elusive absurd. So Griffiths, to me, is a humorless man pondering why others laugh.
Chambers and his cast respect Griffiths' seious aim. Tony Straiges, whose "Timbuktu!" sets I did not admire at the Opera House, creates the atmosphere of both settings splendidly.
The north country accents are exceptionally well caught. Andrew Davis as Price, and Robert Prosky as Waters, are excellent. So, indeed, are they all - Timothy Meyers, Mark Hammer, Joe Palmieri, Joel Colodner, John Madden Towey and Terrence Currier, as Challenor, and the amusing interruptions by John Wylie and Faizul Khan.