A Thousand Clowns emerge from Hat Trick Theatre

But actor Ned Averill-Snell steals the show.

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click to enlarge ALL IN THE FAMILY: Hannah Anton and Ned Averill-Snell in A Thousand Clowns. - gene mccolgan
gene mccolgan
ALL IN THE FAMILY: Hannah Anton and Ned Averill-Snell in A Thousand Clowns.

Ned Averill-Snell is one of the best reasons to go to the theater in the Bay area. Only a few weeks ago, he managed, along with Emilia Sargent, to rescue I Do! I Do! from terminal mustiness, and now he’s making Herb Gardner’s otherwise mediocre A Thousand Clowns a show well worth seeing. Actually, it’s the actor who’s worth seeing. He plays the part of unemployed television writer Murray Burns with wonderful sincerity, finding in this self-centered, ornery character so many lovable quirks and laughable foibles, you’ve got to excuse him for being a cantankerous quitter. Averill-Snell’s Murray is charming and manic and self-tortured and fun, a hero to his 12-year-old niece and a savior to the social worker who comes to indict him but then stays the night. In another actor’s hands, this part might collapse under the weight of Murray’s neuroses; but with Averill-Snell in charge, Murray is bigger than mere sanity, too incisive for conformity, too original for a nine-to-five. Would you want to depend on him? Not for a moment. But to watch him at play — and he’s always at play — is delightful.

Clowns is the sort of comedy that used to dominate 1960s Broadway: “sophisticated,” slightly risqué (you couldn’t see such on television), and ultimately meaningless. It’s just like Neil Simon’s early successes: asking questions of no real importance, and providing answers guaranteed to push no one toward a new thought. Murray Burns, we learn, is an out-of-work humorist whose heart of gold has him looking after his abandoned niece Nicki. Then two functionaries from New York’s Department of Child Services descend upon his apartment, and inform him that they’re planning to take Nicki away. Murray, it seems, hasn’t adopted the child, hasn’t registered as her legal guardian, hasn’t even shown through continued employment that he’s capable of supporting her. Nicki, of course, loves her eccentric Uncle Murray, and wants to stay put. But even when psychologist Sandra Markowitz defects from her state agency and shares Murray’s bed, her colleague Albert Amundson presses on with his mission. Only if Murray can immediately find good employment — perhaps with Chuckles the Chipmunk, the kids’ favorite for whom he used to write — will he stand a chance of keeping Nicki. Can Murray overcome his contempt for ordinary wage-earning (and for contemptible Chuckles) long enough to win custody? And can an egotist like Murray retain the heart of sensible Sandra?

The honest answer is: What difference does it make? Sure, we want a happy ending, but, looking beyond such a reflex, there’s next to nothing — morally, philosophically — really at stake here.

Still, there are performances to enjoy in this Hat Trick Theatre production — not only Averill-Snell’s but Peter Konowicz’s as Amundson, Michael C. McGreevy’s as Murray’s brother Arnold, Dana Kovar’s as Sandra Markowitz, and Hannah Anton’s as little Nicki. McGreevy particularly is effective: he’s also Murray’s long-suffering agent, a decent man trying to represent an indecent talent.

This is the first time I’ve been totally convinced by one of McGreevy’s performances; somehow director Jack Holloway has found the inner light, the genuine pathos in this outsize, imposing figure. Konowicz as case worker Amundson is also impressive: constantly refusing to be seen as a villain, he manages to persuade us that he’s at least as well-intentioned as the man he threatens. Dana Kovar continues to develop as a performer: she’s ingratiating as Markowitz, with a smile so warm, she could win anyone over. And Anton as 12-year-old Nicki, dressed by costumer Gi Young Sung in one dissonantly loud outfit after another, is cute as a plaid button on a checkered blouse. Only Ian Beck as Leo Herman, the man behind Chuckles the Clown, fails to entertain: he’s so extreme and intense, he seems to belong to a different universe. Clowns fits nicely on Kaylin Gess’ fine, bright set of Murray’s Manhattan apartment.

But this show really belongs to Averill-Snell: watch how he gives himself completely to his character. This is inspired work by a top-notch talent — and a performance you’ll remember long after you’ve forgotten the second-rate play in which it appears.

Deck All Halls. I loved Holiday Party of One when it was produced at Stageworks last year, so do your best to catch it — with hilariously nasal Ricky Cona — now that it’s appearing at New Stage Theatre in Largo. Written by local talent Alison Burns, this multicultural, multi-racial crowd-pleaser recognizes Christmas and Hanukkah and that fugitive thing, human solidarity, all while serving up a big portion of holiday cheer. Through Dec. 20. $25.88. Thurs.-Sat. at 8, Sun. at 3. Go to newstagelargo.org for tickets.

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