Tom Selleck’s presence in his stage debut is as formidable as on TV and movie screens. Selleck fans will adore him even more in person; fans of Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” will be comparing him to Jason Robards, who played the lead on Broadway in 1962 and on film in ’65. The experience and polish of the revival’s stellar supporting cast shows the demands on Selleck of transitioning from other media to stage. The star needs the opportunity to refine his technique during preview runs at Duke U. in Durham and Shubert theaters in Chicago and Boston before opening on Broadway in July.
Director John Rando, who molded the New York stage debuts of John Ritter and Henry Winkler in Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party,” maximizes Selleck’s strengths. The actor’s casual, chummy, aw-shucks style fits too nicely sometimes on the role of social cynic and freelance writer Murray Burns, who flip-flops on whether to sacrifice his cynicism and get a job, or give up his live-in nephew to a child welfare agency. Once Selleck, who delivers spark and sex appeal even without his signature mustache, masters the nuances of embracing a role onstage and establishing rapport with a live audience, his and the play’s fans can have it all.
Improvements should come in timing among the cast in delivering Gardner’s tight and somewhat updated script. Minor but intrusive flaws in utilizing props need correcting so heads are not banged on the window leading to the apartment fire escape. Doors need to open easily or stay shut when closed. Nonetheless, the presentation being put together is delightful and fun.
Nicholas King, as precocious nephew Nick, is an endearing scene-stealer. Nick is more adult in many ways than Murray, whose boyish ways charm conflicted social worker Sandra (Barbara Garrick). Murray wrestles with whether to return to work as a writer for Leo (Mark Blum) on “Chuckles,” a TV show for children. Murray created the show’s character three years earlier when he wrote that a chipmunk is nothing but a cute rat. Leo’s comic schizophrenia, as presented by Blum, hilariously dominates the third act.
Bradford Cover amusingly portrays Sandra’s social co-worker and timid admirer, the overly serious Albert Amundson. Arnold Burns (Robert Lupone) is Murray’s brother and agent, the stuffed shirt with a soft heart.
The one-room apartment set by Allen Moyer is charmingly cluttered, but Nick’s alcove is neat. It’s amusingly adaptable for Sandra’s makeover, which is undone by Murray tossing pillows and bedcovers across the room.
The play’s appeal nearly 40 years ago as a family-oriented romantic comedy is schmaltzy and counter to the current culture of the theatrical world. Producers are hoping its uniqueness in the current environment will be its strength — but Selleck’s presence is a stronger bet.