Review: Funnyman (Northlight Theatre)

| September 23, 2015

Rob Lindley and George Wendt star in Northlight Theatre's "Funnyman" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)      

Written by Bruce Graham
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd. (map)
thru Oct 25 | tix: $25-$79  | more info
Check for half-price tickets    


Now extended thru October 25th!

A journey worth taking


George Wendt, Michael Perez and Amanda Drinkall in Northlight Theatre's world premiere "Funnyman" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Northlight Theatre presents

Review by John Olson

The idea of a story set in the New York entertainment world of the 1950’s is irresistible to an arts and entertainment geek like me. The Golden Age of Broadway was underway, network television was still new and NYC was one of the two hubs of the show business world. Sure, stories about this world have been done before, but isn’t it always fun to return to that time and place when so much of the art we love was pioneered? Playwright Bruce Graham had the right idea for this World Premiere play about a burlesque and Broadway follies comedian struggling to remain relevant amid changing audience tastes in the later years of his career. Graham just didn’t – or doesn’t yet – have enough ideas for a plot or characters to work within this setting.

Steve Haggard and Tim Kazurinsky in Northlight Theatre's world premiere "Funnyman" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)The comedian of the title is Chick Sherman, played here by TV’s George Wendt. Graham says the character and situation were inspired by Bert Lahr (The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion) and his decision to play a role in the New York debut of Beckett’s absurdist Waiting for Godot in 1956. Chick hasn’t been in a Broadway show in years and has been keeping his income flowing by doing TV commercials for an antacid product called “Bromo Tab.” His long suffering agent Milt Karp, Jr. (son of Chick’s previous long-suffering agent, the late Milt Karp Sr.) doesn’t have the heart to tell Chick there are no offers out there but one for a role in the US premiere of an absurdist play to be produced off-Broadway. Through a series of deceits Milt (called Junior and played by the always-charming Tim Kazurinsky) gets Chick to take the job, even though the plays’ hot-shot young hipster director (Steve Haggard) is only offering it to Chick on the insistence of the playwright, In the course of rehearsing the play, Chick will have to face some demons that have a role in his tenuous relationship with his adult daughter Katherine (Amanda Drinkall).

For the entire 55-minute first act, we learn little about Chick except that he’s difficult to work with and is emotionally isolated from his daughter. He softens up in the second act, when he forges an alliance with the gay, alcoholic southern writer (Rob Lindley) who seems a latter-day Tennessee Williams and when we learn the family secret that has haunted him and damaged the relationship with Katherine. It’s a long haul to get there, made even harder by the halting, choppy delivery director BJ Jones has imposed on his cast, though their delivery is more fluid in the second act. Regardless, neither the premise of an older entertainer coming to terms with the need to redefine his act nor his adult child complaining that “you were always working and were were never there for me” is nothing new, and Graham adds nothing new to it. He does add an unnecessary subplot about Katherine and her Carnegie Hall co-worker Nathan Wise (Michael Perez) a charming character who adds little to the proceedings except to mention that his intellectual ex-screenwriter parents were big fans of Chick, thus adding a little more period color through this reference to New York intellectuals of the period.

There are some fun references to the period – two black and white mock commercials with Chick pitching Bromo Tab, and a clip of the end title from “I Love Lucy”, but not enough to fully exploit the inherent appeal of that golden age. I guess we can credit Graham with avoiding stereotype for the director character – an avant-garde artiste – but he seems to have played it too safe here. Much more fun is Lindley’s writer, and Lindley’s arrival on stage late in the first act is the first sign of life in this production. In total, there’s not nearly as much visualization of this colorful period as there might have been – and the decision to place the play’s three major settings – Chick’s home, Milt’s office and Katherine’s workplace all on the same stage, rather than using a turntable or rolling on pieces – limits the ability of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set to enhance it.

Audiences will be drawn to Funnyman largely to see Wendt. He does what he can and delivers a few decent laughs (as does Kazurinsky). He also acquits himself well in the later, more touching scenes. There’s not much in this script, though. While most world premieres can fairly be termed “first drafts,” this one seems less like even a draft and more like a pitch for a better script to come.

Rating: ★★½

Funnyman continues through October 18th October 25th at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. (map), with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2:30pm and 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm and 7pm.  Tickets are $25-$79, and are available by phone (874-673-6300) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 1 hour 55 minutes, includes an intermission)

George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky in Northlight Theatre's world premiere "Funnyman" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Michael Brosilow  




Amanda Drinkall (Katherine Sherman), Steve Haggard (Matthew Baroni), Tim Kazurinsky (Milt “Junior” Karp), Rob Lindley (Victor LaPlant), Michael Perez (Nathan Wise), George Wendt (Chick Sherman)

behind the scenes

BJ Jones (director), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), Jesse Klug (lighting design), Andrew Hansen (sound design), Rita Vreeland (production stage manager), Rachel Laritz (costume design), Stephen Mazurek (projection design), Hannah Todd (assistant director), Lauren Shouse (dramaturgy consultant), Jake Hoover (assistant dramaturg), Kurtis Boetcher (properties master), John Carlin (production asistsant), Shannon Higgens (costume supervisor), Michael Brosilow (photos)


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Category: 2015 Reviews, Extensions-Remounts, John Olson, New Work, North Shore Center for the Arts, Northlight Theatre, World Premier

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