Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns" is one of the quintessential New York comedies. The current revival, which stars Tom Selleck, has a fatally Los Angeles feel to it. Like many '50s and early-'60s plays, "Clowns" addressed the issue of conformity. Murray Burns, the character Selleck plays, quits his job writing for a children's TV show because he hates the compromises corporate television demands. It is admirable that he is willing to make financial sacrifices to avoid being a cog. Like many '60s rebels, however, he is essentially selfish. He is also the guardian of a precocious 10-year-old nephew, Nick, whom he has schooled in eccentricity. Having learned his lessons too well, Nick has come to the attention of the city Department of Social Services, which questions Murray's suitability as his guardian. Murray's devotion to his nephew has its limits. Nick has a corner of Murray's hilariously cluttered apartment, but the boy often has to climb up a fire escape to spend the night with a neighbor when Murray has female companionship. Nevertheless, the prospect of losing Nick humiliates Murray into taking his old job back. Generally, Murray is played with heroic high energy as he mocks the social workers who come to interrogate him, as he insults the men who want to hire him, as he leans out his window to shout outrageous comments at his neighbors. Selleck's Murray is laid-back, even bleary. Admittedly, it takes guts to emphasize the depressive quality inherent in the material, but you can't forgo the laughs. Murray may be a self-destructive, self-absorbed person, but how can we care about him if he isn't also charming and spirited? Moreover, we don't really believe he's so crazy about Nick that he would knuckle under so the boy could stay with him. Nine-year-old Nicolas King, who plays Nick, looks incredibly like a middle-aged businessman, which gives his lines the right edge, but he has a tendency to swallow a lot of his words, so some of his laughs get lost. Both he and Selleck address a lot of their lines directly to the audience - two guys working the room - which undercuts our belief in their relationship. These are directorial problems, though no one envies John Rando's having to direct a TV star and a little boy. The strongest work comes from Robert LuPone as Murray's solemn, driven brother and Mark Blum as the kiddie-show host, who is desperate for Murray and Nick's approval. When they speak, the two give Gardner's words the crackle, the nervous energy they require. Barbara Garrick has muted charm as the social worker whom Murray seduces. Bradford Cover is suitably humorless as her boss. Forty years ago, "Clowns" seemed a portrait of defiance. Now that practically everybody wears a ring through his nose and eyebrows to signal defiance, it's hard to make nonconformity novel or exciting. It requires more energy and sizzle than this production has.
The whimsical, irascible, lovable and rigid non-conformist is as American as a coonskin cap - and in contemporary terms, just about as likely.
It was to Herb Gardner's enormous credit that in 1962, in his first produced play, "A Thousand Clowns," he came up with a modern character, Murray Burns, who convincingly embodied the ethos of the unmade bed with the philosophy of the Founding Fathers.
This endearing figure - and he really is endearing - was first played by Jason Robards, who also appeared in the movie version, and, much more recently, by Judd Hirsch.
Now the honor goes to "Magnum, P.I.," a.k.a. Tom Selleck, who last night at the Longacre Theatre made not only his Broadway debut, but also what I understand is his professional stage debut. He certainly waited a while.
It seems the 56-year-old Selleck always had a love for this particular play and a hankering for this particular role. Luckily for him and for us, neither love nor hankering proves unfounded.
The year is 1962. Kennedy is president, and the conformist roles of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the Organization Man are being questioned. We are moving into the '60s - the age of the dropout.
Gardner's Murray has dropped out of what he sees as a life narrowed by unnecessary necessity; by a blind obedience to a system that makes one day indistinguishable from another - specifically, he's walked out of a well-paid job writing for a children's TV show featuring Charlie the Chipmunk.
Unfortunately, reality breaks into Murray's world - and doesn't deal kindly with his quixotic eccentricity.
Murray finds himself the guardian of his 12-year-old nephew (when it comes to dropping out, Murray's sister could give him lessons), and his suitability in that role is being questioned by the child welfare authorities.
Murray eventually resolves to find gainful employment. But it took the urging of his nephew, his stiff-backed yet reasonable brother, Arnold (who is also his agent), and Murray's sprouting love for Sandra, one of the welfare officers.
The outcome is predictable enough and perhaps mildly manipulative - brutal reality is as a rare visitor to Gardner's comedy as it is to Murray's outlook - but the play and its message haven't become dated and still exert an untarnishable charm.
And that message? Keep yourself alive for when that event or person emerges: "And like in the circus, this tiny red car comes out and putters around, suddenly its doors open, and out come a thousand clowns, whooping and hollering and raising hell."
Selleck plays Murray with a masterly rapscallion confidence, and a slight phoniness that falls right into place - for Murray is a supremely self-confident trickster, duping the world and himself with aggressive inaction.
Director John Rando - much helped by Allen Moyer's amiably chaotic setting, Martin Pakledinaz's shrewd '60s costumes and Brian MacDevitt's nicely dusty lighting - has given the staging style and substance.
The cast, in addition to that admirable neophyte, Selleck, seems carefully chosen for perfect ripeness.
Barbara Garrick is nicely giggly as the welfare lady with doubts, Bradford Cover is superbly uptight as her erstwhile partner, Mark Blum is horrifically frenetic as the awesome Chipmunk, Nicolas King is not at all objectionable as the know-it-all 12-year-old nephew and Robert Lupone is supremely polished, all sense and sensibility, as Murray's elder brother.
"A Thousand Clowns" wears its 40 or so years lightly - and makes a sweetly encouraging opener for Broadway's 2001/2002 season.
Eccentricity has become more difficult to define since 1962, when Murray Burns, the childish renegade at the center of ''A Thousand Clowns,'' first made his appearance on Broadway in the person of Jason Robards. Herb Gardner's precious, middle-of-the-road comedy about Murray, an unemployed television writer who is forced, with a lot of literal and psychological kicking and screaming, to return to work so he can retain custody of his young nephew, was, in large part, a paean to idiosyncrasy and the value of not going along to get along.
But the remarkable societal changes wrought by the upheavals of the 1960's and the evolution of politics, culture and technology in subsequent decades brought with them the expanded acceptability, publicity and tolerance of (forgive me for the phrase) lifestyle choices beyond what used to be called ''the norm.'' That there even is a perceived norm these days is a matter for debate. But it is certainly the case that the kind of life circumscribed by a 9-to-5 workday, a two-parent family, a neat home and an assured future -- the Eisenhower-era conformity against which Murray was rebelling -- is no longer it.
These days, eccentrics, to be worthy of the name, have to be considerably more imaginative and committed than Murray, whose seize-the-day, express-yourself, use-your-mind, don't-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down philosophy is not exactly provocative to begin with, and is manifest in generally bland and benign ways: an apartment cluttered with oddball stuff, a perpetual jokiness at the expense of presumed authority, a fear of commitment to a woman, a refusal to work for a man he doesn't respect or to do work he can't control.
He does object to television's tendency to pander to the audience; it's his one prescient quality. But basically he's a guy whose saber-rattling spirit is satisfied by sneaking off to the movies instead of looking for work. By the current iconoclastic standards set by Ross Perot, say, or Theodore Kaczynski -- disparate eccentrics for our time -- Murray Burns seems more like his own contemporary antithesis, Ward Cleaver.
That ''A Thousand Clowns'' is a painfully dated work is not the only reason, however, that the revival that opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theater yesterday is very nearly unendurable. Directed with a surprising paucity of invention by the gifted and ordinarily energetic John Rando (''Urinetown,'' The Dinner Party''), this is a by-the-numbers production paced at a dogged slog. Usually these are characteristics of a show constrained by inexperience, and the guess here is that Mr. Rando is a victim of the problem he was saddled with: What to do with Tom Selleck, the once-hunky, once-mustached television detective who is making his stage debut at age 56, wildly miscast and out of his league as Murray Burns.
That Murray is supposed to be in his 30's, and that Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Garrick), the inept social worker he seduces and falls for is 25 and just out of school, is only the beginning of the Hollywood-style vanity that pillows Mr. Selleck's performance. It isn't just that it doesn't seem to have occurred to Mr. Selleck that Murray is a New Yorker -- the jock-ish shambling around he does in his apartment and the laid-back smugness of manner all emanate from somewhere way west of the Hudson -- or that the cultural signifiers in the script suggest that Murray is Jewish. The way Mr. Selleck says the word ''pastrami,'' without any lust at all, makes you think he's going to put mayonnaise on it. In any case, his tone-deaf line readings rob the play's paled humor of most of the cute snickers that have survived 40 years of dust. In fact, he hasn't really bothered to create a character at all.
In some recent film work, Mr. Selleck has, to some degree, improved on the reputation as a handsome cutout that he earned in eight years as a folksy detective in Hawaii on television's ''Magnum, P.I.''; he gave a thoughtfully winsome performance as a shrewd homosexual magazine reporter in the comedy ''In and Out.'' But on stage, without the protection of the camera, forced to act with his whole body at every second, he comes off like a beginner, as if following a map in his head and solving the role one moment at a time. Every movement and every utterance seem learned and carefully applied -- O.K., now lean lazily out of the window and shout charming nonsense at the upstairs neighbors -- as though he's checking items off a list.
This is idea-free acting, a contagious affliction, particularly for those whose own performances depend on partnership. It's significant that the play is at its most alive during scenes in which Mr. Selleck is inconsequential. In the third act, way too late to salvage any momentum, two highly professional actors in secondary roles provide welcome juice with their solo turns. Robert LuPone, as Arnold, Murray's decent, practical brother (and agent), gives a stirring soliloquy that spells out the difference in character between the two men. And Mark Blum, as Leo Herman, the temperamental and insecure television actor who wants to re-employ Murray on his children's show, ''Chuckles the Chipmonk,'' has a great time with the self-pitying tantrum Leo throws in Murray's living room.
Mr. Selleck's main foil, however, is a child actor, Nicolas King (he's 10; unlike his co-star, he's age-appropriate). As Murray's brainy, old-for-his-age nephew Nick, dressed in a sweater vest over a shirt and tie, he has the aptly engaging mien of a little man. But young Nicolas has some problems with word garbling, and like many pre-adolescent actors in large parts, he has been meticulously directed, which means there are two rather wooden performances knocking against each other up there. Their one rewardingly cute moment -- sappy, but cheerily choreographed by Mr. Rando -- is their singing duet, ''Yes Sir, That's My Baby,'' in which they accompany themselves on ukuleles.
Also disappointing is Ms. Garrick. In the long first act, Sandra goes from being engaged to Albert (Bradford Cover), her presumptuous and fussbudgety city co-worker, to being charmed by Murray and Nick, to dumping Albert and being seduced by Murray. By feminist standards it's an unkindly weepy and ditzy role, but by comic ones it's rather broad and challenging with its mood swings. Ms. Garrick may have gifts as a comedian, but if so they're squelched here; in any case, she has to take some responsibility for her chemistry with Mr. Selleck, which generates all the sparks of a clammy handshake, and for the deadly scene they play together that, contrary to all the emotional evidence on stage, generates a love affair.
''A Thousand Clowns'' is a play that many now-middle-aged baby boomers remember with fondness; Murray Burns's grumpy rebellion against expectations was, after all, an early harbinger of the more divisive challenges to authority that followed and molded a generation. Their nostalgia will, alas, be sorely tested by this revival. Among other things it will remind people that Murray's protest fails; he concedes to the forces of the status quo. And for Nick's sake, not to mention his own, it's the right thing to do. Like Mr. Selleck, he has every reason to return to his job in television.
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.