‘Funnyman’ touches the funny bone and heart
NORTHVILLE, Mich.–“It’s tragedy! We have to laugh. When things are horrible, what else do we have?” Brandy Joe Plambeck as Playwright Victor La Plant yells at the top of his lungs while trying to explain the concepts of his play INSIDE the Bruce Graham production of Funnyman at Tipping Point Theatre.
I’ve always admired playwrights that delve into the play within a play
dramatic plot device; a device created by the French in the 14th century
and used successfully by many playwrights over the years, especially
William Shakespeare. Funnyman, however, doesn’t just use the play within a play concept, Mr. Graham cleverly involved the movie business as well, including the audience as if we are right on the soundstage of a
live studio audience.
It’s often portrayed that actors, writers, and comedians lead the most
depressed lives. This play opens the window into this line of thought and
peers into the life of the aging comic-not-comedian, vaudeville, follies,
and broadway actor Chick Sherman (Wayne David Parker), a highly skilled and dedicated actor. His agent, Milt “Junior” Karp (John Lepard), often corrects people when they call Chick “a comedian.” “Comics say
things funny. Comedians say funny things,” is a line said in the play, but
made famous by vaudevillian actor Ed Wynn, the voice of the Mad
hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland animated classic.
Funny, Chick Sherman’s character was most famous for portraying the Mad Hatter on Broadway. Even though similarities can be seen between the fictional actor Chick Sherman and real-life actor Ed Wynn, Tipping Point Artistic Director and Director of Funnyman James Kuhl also sees the similarities in the life of Bert Lahr, most connected to the role of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. He too had similar issues that mirror what is portrayed in this story.
This play, however, isn’t a bio-pic into just one actor’s sad life, but rather a
fictional account of a life that could honestly find ties to many actors. On the outside, they are happy, wild, and eager to please their audiences. But inside or at home they fall into a deep funk of doom, gloom, and secrets.
This is a play with the deep message to not just judge a book by its cover, because you never know what kind of mysteries lie underneath.
And mysteries lie within this production too. Chick Sherman lives with his
20-something daughter, Katherine Sherman (Lani Call). Her youth is filled
with broken memories of her dad entertaining fans around her, yet shifting
her away to be raised at a boarding school with a serious lack of love and
attention from her widowed father. Katherine becomes obsessed with finding out how her mother died at the age of 24 of “natural causes.”
Ms. Call and Mr. Parker have such an intense chemistry together, one might even believe they really are estranged father and daughter. In one scene, Ms. Call even reenacts her father’s Mad hatter scene, a talent show act from boarding school, as she truly enters the mannerisms of early vaudeville actors, using all body movements, facial expressions, and muscle memory to perform the short bit, afterwhich, her father storms away offended.
Scenes overlap and flow gracefully into one another, binding the scenes
together as they switch between acting spaces of Katherine’s office, Milt’s
office, the Sherman home, and theatre and studio spaces. It’s a clever
directing technique to connect the characters together. And this cast
definitely is connected together. Their chemistry together is
electrifying. It’s as if they really have been suffering in each other’s
presence for their lifetimes.
Due to Chick’s age, his career is slowly fading away from him, and his
agent cunningly and cleverly manipulated him to take a role in a serio-comic new play called, “Lucy’s Kitchen” written by a Parisian/Alabamian
extremely flamboyantly and drunken writer, Victor La Plant. The playwright was by far, my absolute favorite character. Plambeck exploded in every scene he was in whether it was a temper tantrum on the floor or swinging Chick around an empty auditorium.
Chick takes the roll in the play he claims he doesn’t understand, but the
playwright and his agent know that the world needs to see the “real” Chick
Sherman and this off-Broadway production will make his mark. As the
mystery of Katherine’s mother is relieved as well as Chick’s own tragic
past with his own mother, Chick and Katherine’s relationship begins to heal
as the final scene from Lucy’s Kitchen, the play within a play, relieves
all the connections and pieces.
Even though Funnyman is the epitome of a father/daughter angst
relationship, every daughter should take her father to see this show on
Father’s Day this year. It’s such a moving look into human relationships
and the realization that everyone may be hiding their own dark terrors
behind their big guffaws and smiling faces.