A true comedian “works through laughter, not for it,” the once-popular Eddie Waters tells his students in Comedians. “A real comedian . . . dares to see what his audience shies away from.” The debate over whether a comedian should aim for cheap laughs and easy targets or strive to reveal greater truths lies at the heart of Trevor Griffiths’s play. The great irony is that not all would-be comedians are talented enough even to have a choice.
The comedians in this play are a sad lot: down-on-their-luck workingmen desperate for a shot at the big time. They rifle through improv exercises, struggle with character work, and rattle off jokes that are innocuous, obscene, or both. Their teacher, a deadly serious man who long ago gave up his comedy career, is trying to impart his philosophical wisdom about the role of comedians to this bumbling crew.
We follow this group through their last class before an audition for a talent agent at a local comedy club. Waters begs his students in his final lecture to strive for meaning and truth, while the talent agent informs them that they should aim for laughs. In the second act the comedians perform their acts, trying to decide whether to please their teacher or the talent agent. And in the third act the comedians return to their classroom, where their performances are dissected. Waters’s effort to turn this group into profoundly affecting comedians makes the play a sort of tragic comedy, with the performers struggling to decide which method to use to become successful, not realizing that they’re probably destined for failure no matter what choice they make.
One of the major complaints about Comedians when it opened on Broadway in the mid-70s was that it examined many British social issues that weren’t intelligible to American audiences. Working with director Barney Simon of South Africa’s Market Theatre and Chicago writer and comedian Aaron Freeman, Griffiths has come up with a new adaptation for Court Theatre that tries nobly to bring out the underlying tragic ironies of the original script while making the show palatable to local audiences.
The work has been reset in 1992 Chicago, and some of the characters have been changed to reflect the city’s cultural diversity. In this version a transplanted Irishman becomes a transplanted southern black. A Jewish comedian becomes Cuban, and two brothers become two sisters. The changes work better than one might expect, but the show still loses something in translation. The new version slides uncomfortably between comedic and dramatic moments, and sometimes the drama is undercut by the kind of cheap laughs Waters warned against.
Given the seriousness of this play, the couple of jokes about the Chicago Loop flood seem out of place–they would be much better suited to a comedy revue such as Freeman’s Do the White Thing. A lame, forced joke about one of the characters in the show being “to comedy what Edward Scissorhands is to foreplay” also seems to belong in a different show. A couple of the American touches are just plain sloppy, such as the assertion that the talent agent, Bert Chance, once worked with W.C. Fields. Since Fields died in 1946 and Chance seems to be no more than 50, this seems rather unlikely.
One of the most dramatically charged moments in Griffiths’s script comes at the comedy club when Waters’s favorite student, Gethin Price, forsakes his original routine and launches into a bitter, savage diatribe about class distinctions. Price squeaks away at a toy violin and then viciously stalks two poshly dressed mannequins who are stand-ins for his complacent audience. In this version Price also performs a superfluous Flavor Flav-style rap number before and after his speech that undermines the integrity of his violent catharsis by turning it into a carefully scripted and choreographed showpiece. In the original version of the script Bert Chance criticizes Price’s performance, telling him that he might have some talent “as a mime,” meaning that Price should keep his mouth shut. Here, Chance tells Price he might have some talent “as a rapper.” Like so much of the rest of the show, this moment concentrates on making the play suit Chicago at the expense of humor and universality.
The reaction of the opening-night audience seemed to be puzzlement more than anything. In the program Aaron Freeman promised that the play would be “funnier than a trainload of nitrous oxide,” but judging from the stultified silence he must have meant carbon monoxide. One might find it healthy that the audience seemed not to know where to laugh, but this ambivalence seemed to carry over from the script.
But nothing’s wrong with the ten actors, who work together effortlessly. Especially good are Lex Monson’s professorial Eddie Waters and Peter Siragusa’s Bert Chance, who would not look out of place running any number of comedy clubs in Lyons and Rosemont. The only time the performers falter is when the new script gives them material that’s inappropriate or contradictory to the original’s intent. They might have performed even better if Court Theatre’s highly regarded adapters had left well enough alone.