Eminently adorable TV star Tom Selleck has chosen a safe bet for his Broadway debut. He’s headlining a revival of Herb Gardner’s adorable 1962 comedy “A Thousand Clowns,” playing the adorable Murray Burns, the eccentric but good-hearted fellow whose guardianship of his young nephew Nick is threatened when stiff-necked social workers come to call at his adorably ramshackle apartment.
Murray is a familiar type, the kooky iconoclast who looks at the world as a big playpen and awakens everyone around him to the kid within. He’s a lovable nonconformist, the cockeyed kind of guy who thumbs his nose at convention, plays the ukulele and keeps his socks in a filing cabinet. He chucks the rat race to go to the Statue of Liberty just for the hell of it and serenades his neighbors with madcap chatter (“Everyone onstage for the Hawaiian number, please!”). In short, he’s the kind of fella only a heartless cretin could fail to love.
I am that heartless cretin.
Having admitted as much, I will nevertheless attempt to be as clear-eyed as possible in assessing the merits of John Rando’s production, remaining aware that one man’s sentimental claptrap is another man’s whimsical urban fable. (Many audience members around me guffawed and cooed throughout the play’s three acts.)
The role of Murray was originated on Broadway and re-created on film by Jason Robards, and Robards’ hangdog charm and aching soulfulness — not to mention the depth of his acting skill — brought some much-needed ballast to Murray’s soul-searching speeches about the emptiness of his life as a 9-to-5 writer on a kids TV show.
Selleck brings an easygoing, grizzled charm to the role and coasts happily along its surfaces; he has a fine stage voice and charisma to spare, but the performance is about as deep as the dimples in his cheeks. It’s proficient but emotionally thin, and at times it’s hard not to see in Selleck’s aw-shucks grin a pleased awareness of the cuteness of it all.
Nicolas King plays Murray’s nephew Nick, the grownup 10-year-old who plays exasperated chaperone to his juvenile guardian. King clearly has been cast for his uncanny resemblance to a shrunken adult. It’s a large role, and hats off to King for doing his homework, but the fact is he seems to have memorized chunks of it by rote, with the result that many lines are rendered incomprehensible by his unnatural rhythms.
Nor is Barbara Garrick ideally cast as Sandra, the social worker who comes with her fiance Albert (Bradford Cover) to query Murray about his fitness as a guardian and ends up redecorating the place. Sandy Dennis and Barbara Harris played the role in the original Broadway production and the movie, respectively, and a dithery comedienne is really what the role needs; Garrick is a fine actress but no dithery comedienne. Her big breakdown scene in the first act should be a comic high point — here it’s mostly pathetic.
Mark Blum enlivens the third act with his vivid turn as Murray’s once and future employer Leo, aka Chuckles the Chipmunk, who is part shark and part jellyfish. Robert LuPone and Cover also are adept in their supporting roles.
Allen Moyer has designed Murray’s one-room universe with care for its organized zaniness, and Martin Pakledinaz’s terrific costumes have a cool ’60s sheen, particularly the men’s sleek business suits.
As an ode to nonconformism, “A Thousand Clowns” probably seemed revolutionary in the aftermath of the buttoned-down 1950s. Four decades on, much of Gardner’s once-disarming irreverence seems tame and contrived; it has been superseded by more edgy forms of comic iconoclasm (as in 10 years of “Seinfeld”).
And three hours is a long time to wait for a conclusion that is predictable from the play’s first minutes; if you entertain even the vaguest suspicion that “A Thousand Clowns” is going to end with little Nick being torn from Uncle Murray’s arms by a social worker, I’ve got some land in Florida you may be interested in.