Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the July 21, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘Old Clown Wanted’

The notice posted on the door says "Old Clown Wanted." That’s a good

enough hint to the purpose and identity of Niccolo (Ames Adamson), the

tired older man fast asleep in one of only two straight-back chairs in

a virtually barren windowless anteroom. His beaten up suitcase sits on

the floor. Another hint as to what awaits him and us is the room

itself. The two-tone walls are slightly tilted, as is a lone file

cabinet, giving the room a skewed sense of reality. Filippo (Al H.

Mohrmann), another weary-looking man, enters the room. He also has a

suitcase.

Not only is it evident that he too has come to see about the job, but

also that he knows the other man. Filippo isn’t terribly happy to find

out that he isn’t going to be the first to be interviewed, but he

appears happy to be unexpectedly reunited with Niccolo, whom he hasn’t

seen since their circus days. Filippo says it was the way that Niccolo

blows his nose that made him remember him. But quite soon Filippo,

braced by the contents of his flask, begins to bait and taunt his old

friend, challenging the veracity of his tales and repeating rumors of

Niccolo’s death.

Insults are punctuated with embraces as the two reminisce about their

lives and their travels. Filippo’s insults prompt Niccolo to

demonstrate his agility by doing a head stand against the wall. In the

meantime, they wait for someone in authority to come. Someone does

come, but it is Peppino (Ugo N. Toppo), yet another old clown with a

suitcase. You can expect that long festering rivalries will be brought

to the surface, and they are.

The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, known for its policy

of producing new plays, is presenting the United States premiere of

Romanian playwright Matei Visniec’s "Old Clown Wanted." Visniec’s play

is either a tribute or a throwback to the "theater of the absurd," an

expressionistic style of theater portraying a world that is no longer

rational. Either way you look at it, it is clearly prompted by the

kind of surreal theater that flourished during the 1950s and 1960s –

the most famous play of the genre being Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for

Godot." Many playwrights, including Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard,

Edward Albee, and Sam Shepard have been influenced by this kind of

theatrical literature, which stressed poetic metaphors.

Written about 10 years ago, "Old Clown Wanted" is a curious but

compelling dark comedy with its roots buried in the tradition of

ground-breaking existentialist playwrights Beckett, Jean Genet, and

Eugene Ionescu – to name a few). It resonates boldly with its kinship

to "Godot," especially in the thrust of its so-called plot in which

three forlorn but plucky fellows find solace in each other while

futilely waiting around for the answers to their questions.

Amidst the enjoyment of watching three accomplished actors careen

through circular antics, redundant arguments, and friendly and hostile

combat, there is the playwright’s agenda to consider. Visniec, who is

currently alive and well and living in Paris, was given political

asylum in France in 1987. But since the fall of communism he has

become one of Romania’s most performed playwrights. Niccolo, Filippo,

and Peppino are also perplexed by the circumstances in which they find

themselves. Each is filled with anxiety and still a hopeful wonder

about what the future holds. A final image of (well, I won’t spoil it

for you) allows us to consider whether what has happened has been a

fantasy, dream, or nightmare.

Whether this production by the New Jersey Rep will activate American

interest in Visniec’s more than 30 plays remains to be seen. "Old

Clown Wanted" is neither dense nor obscure, but it is somewhat retro

in its conceits.

Although director Gregory A. Fortner’s forte is primarily opera, his

theater credits are growing. A few seasons ago, he assisted director

Stephen Wadsworth in his production of Moliere’s "Don Juan" at

McCarter. Fortner provides a firm grip on this play, which could

otherwise get lost in abstractionism. He inspires some very clear and

touching performances, particularly as the three relive their old

clown act in a whirl of funny mime and, of course, growing menace.

As the defensive Niccolo, Adamson gets a lot of mileage out of an

aggressively used handkerchief and his amusingly eccentric body

language (most recently put to memorable use as Holofernes, in the

Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s production of "Love’s Labour’s

Lost"). Mohrmann is eerily effective as the enigmatic provocateur

Filippo, while Toppo, as the dapper and condescending Peppino, their

senior and mentor, gives the most poignant performance. He is

unmercifully derided by his colleagues because he has found a modicum

of success as, of all things, an actor.

Translated from the French by Britisher Alison Sinclair, this play

might appear even better with an American translation that would

soften the slightly arch text. Praise to Carrie Mossman’s off-kilter

set design, Merek Royce Press’s multi-channel sound design, and Jill

Nagle’s stark lighting.

"Old Clown Wanted" is not especially innovative, but it is intriguing.

I would recommend it for all those interested in getting a perspective

on international theater.

– Simon Saltzman

Old Clown Wanted, through August 15, New Jersey Repertory Company, 179

Broadway, Long Branch. $30. 732-229-3166.


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