The premiere of “Old Clown Wanted” by the New Jersey Repertory Co. marks the long-awaited U.S. debut of prolific Romanian-born playwright Matei Visniec. Inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1970 pic “The Clowns,” Visniec has crafted a chilling, compelling charade of a trio of old circus clowns who have arrived at a booking office in response to an advertisement. However, the casting director, like Samuel Beckett’s nebulous and enigmatic Godot, is an elusive and ominous no-show.
Ames Adamson, fresh from his giddy comic perf as Holoferenes in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, is Niccolo, the disillusioned, dusty clown who mourns the fact the circus is not what is used to be: “Nobody laughs at somersaults anymore.”
In a desperate attempt to prove his point, Niccolo demonstrates with an exhaustive pantomime of a man who ascends a staircase, steals a melon and is chased and beaten by an angry pursuing crowd. Unable to convince his doubting colleagues that the skit is an inspired piece of comic business, he repeats the routine again and again. Adamson turns the long sequence into an inventive tour de force of frustrated desperation.
Filippo (Al H. Mohrmann), in an attempt to triumph over his wary partners, produces a magic black box that (with the help of the audience, which returns from intermission to find a necessary prop on each seat) miraculously produces a stageful of colored balloons.
“I always made them laugh,” brags the nattily dressed and articulate Peppino (Ugo Toppo), a veteran burned-out clown of 50 years who has long harbored the secret of his art. To illustrate his talent, Peppino feigns a devastating heart attack that panics and angers his partners.
Adamson, Mohrmann and Toppo play well off each other, keenly balancing the grim attitude, verbal tension and dark corners of the play with a generous dose of Three Stooges slapstick.
The play ends where it begins and, like the Beckett of long ago, “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” Yet one leaves the theater with a mind awhirl with speculation.
Director Gregory Fortner has harnessed a well-tuned ear to the play’s inner rhythms, staging it with an exacting balance of the wit and the sobering aspects of the text. Sans intermission, the piece would clock in more comfortably at an uninterrupted 70 minutes, but those balloons have to be set in place. (The obvious answer is to drop them from above, but then again, I have never been one for audience participation.)
The ominous and dingy antechamber designed by Carrie Mossman is a stark, grimy and windowless waiting room, furnished with two chairs and a teetering metal filing cabinet.
Jill Nagle’s sharp and keenly defined lighting design accents the faded glory of circus days and the ominous atmosphere of a dark future.