Thursday July 26, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Murray Burns, the central character in Herb Gardner's 1962 comedy "A Thousand Clowns," is one of the few remaining free spirits in the world.

Clearly, he marches to his own drum, celebrating the spontaneous in the world, mocking the standard, the routine, the corporate, the straight and narrow. His passions include good Jewish deli pastrami. Most of all, Murray bears a deep and abiding affection for his 12-year-old nephew, Nick, whom he inherited by default six years earlier when his sister turned up unexpectedly with a suitcase and a boy, went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back, leaving both suitcase and boy behind.

"I will be sorry to see him go. That kid was the best straight man I ever had," CJ Wilson's charmless, dismissive Murray tells a well-intentioned social worker named Sandy (a whiny, pinch-voiced, verbally shticky Rachel Bay Jones in Berkshire Theatre Group's unsettling, off-kilter production at its Fitzpatrick Main Stage), who comes to Murray's apartment on a professional visit with her by-the-books professional associate and fiance, Albert, and winds up moving in on Murray and Nick's life.

"He is a laugher and laughers are rare. He sees street jokes. He has a good eye and I don't want him to leave until I'm certain he'll never be ashamed of it. Besides that I don't want him to go. I like having him around here."

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As played by Russell Posner, what's not to like. Posner's Nick is bright, spontaneous, insanely bright, funny and mature without being precocious. While he's lighting up Murray's life, he's setting off sparks all around the Fitzpatrick Main Stage.

But Murray, a five-month-unemployed writer for a children's television show, is faced with having Nick taken away from him by the Department of Social Services, unless he can demonstrate at an upcoming hearing that he is gainfully employed. When his agent brother, Arnold (an effective and affecting Andrew Polk) persuades Murray to make amends with his former boss, Leo Herman, aka Chuckles the Chipmunk (a perfectly obnoxious Jordan Gelbner), who wants Murray back, Murray has some choices to make.

Gardner builds a very specific New York cadence and syntax into Murray's speech. It's a rhythm, a linguistic detail Wilson skims over and misses entirely with his rushed, detached line delivery. It's more than a syntactic idiosyncracy that Wilson glosses over. He misses the connections, the underpinnings. It's the verbal equivalent of being in the company of someone who never looks directly at you when they are talking to you.

Gardner's Murray isn't all that difficult to read. Wilson's Murray is inscrutable. His accounts of his whimsical encounters with passers-by and particularly a speech in which he shares with Sandy his ambitions for Nick before he can send Nick out into the world lack conviction and truth.

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In addition to Posner's beguiling, captivating Nick, director Kyle Fabel's production gains much from James Barry's controlling Albert, who patronizes Sandy and disparages her tendency to become emotionally involved with her clients.

As envisioned by Gardner, Albert clearly has never experienced the aroma and taste of really good Jewish delicatessen pastrami. Declarations notwithstanding, as played by Wilson, Murray Burns hasn't either.