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Daring To Be Different In 'Clowns'

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Daring to be different in 'Clowns'

Set in the '60s, the play's examination of unconventionality still resonates


News Arts Writer

Rehearsals for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s upcoming production of Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” have featured one highly unusual component.

“Two of the actors ... have had to learn how to play the ukulele,” explained director Thom Johnson. “So every night, we have a little ukulele practice before we start.”

Fortunately, one of the actors (Jimmy Dee Arnold) plays the guitar, so he’s been able to adapt and lend a hand to his fellow cast member, Neal Kelley. And who knows? This extra bit of bonding may contribute to the two actors’ on-stage portrayal of an uncle and his nephew.

Arnold plays Murray, a misanthropic, cynical former television writer living in New York in the 1960s. For nine years - ever since his sister abandoned her 3-year-old son - Murray has lived with his nephew, Nick. But when Murray’s unconventional parenting style draws the attention of social services, he must choose between familial duty and the unchecked personal freedom he holds dear.

“He really wants to provide a good environment for his nephew, and yet, at the same time, he doesn’t want his nephew to fall into the category of just being another number, another seat on the subway,” said Arnold. “He wants his nephew to really explore his individuality and discover who he is and why he’s a unique human being.”

Ironically, of course, Nick would be far less likely to pursue this personal quest if Murray were to “straighten up” and follow the rules of American society; and this compelling paradox drives Gardner’s comedy - one of the rare plays to focus solely on family relationships among men. 

“The relationship between (Murray and Nick) is quite often - I wouldn’t say brusque, but (Murray)’s short with him at times, and they have a witty repartee,” said Arnold. “But there are times when the nephew gets on his nerves, because sometimes the nephew is more of an adult than (Murray) is.”

One way in which Murray’s arrested development manifests itself is the cluttered, messy bachelor pad he calls home.

“What we thought we would probably have to do is move our entire prop room onto the set, because (Murray) ’s a pack rat, and he’s got these various clocks and trophies and other kinds of things that he’s collected - very eclectic,” said Johnson. “So our set is going to be quite crowded.”

Similarly, Arnold’s head is crowded with Gardner’s carefully constructed language, as well as the sheer volume of Murray’s lines. “(Arnold)’s in 95 percent of the play, so he’s on stage almost all the time,” said Johnson. “And trying to drive the lines into his head is something that any actor who has a large part always worries about, and suffers with.”

This struggle, nonetheless, has led to some comic moments. “In rehearsals, once I dropped the book out of my hand, I became the king of paraphrasers, as my very meticulous assistant director will point out,” Arnold said. “She’ll say, ‘You didn’t get that line right,’ and I’ll say, ‘What did I say?’ and she’ll say, ‘I don’t know what you said. I just know what you didn’t say.’ ”

Also contributing to the show - in a far less demanding capacity - is a teacher and a group of students from Lakewood Elementary. In “Clowns,” Murray’s despised former job involved writing for the “Chuckles the Chipmunk” show, so Lakewood music teacher Jeff Willets composed a theme song that will be sung by students.

“We’ve got 50 fifth-graders all geared up and ready to do the recording,” said Johnson. “Civic Theatre being a community organization, we really thought, well, what better way to involve the community than get a bunch of fifth graders involved in this thing?”

Despite the many lighter elements in “Clowns,” a troubling undercurrent suggests that being markedly different, or unconventional, in America comes with a heavy price. According to Arnold, this still resonates in our “you’re either with us or against us” age.

“Instead of looking for similarities, you’re always looking for differences, and pointing at them and saying, ‘You’re not like me, so I shouldn’t try to understand you?”’ said Arnold. “So I think that if we take any message from play, it’s that we all... look at life in a different way. But it’s all life.”

Jenn McKee can be reached at (734) 994-6841 or


Neal Kelley and Jimmy Dee Arnold rehearse a scene from "A Thousand Clowns," presented this weekend by Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.


'A Thousand Clowns'

Who: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

What: Herb Gardner's classic comedy about a free-spirited writer caught between his need for freedom and his obligation to family.

Where: Towsley Auditorium at Washtenaw Community College, 4800 E. Huron River Drive.

When: 8 p.m.tonight-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

How much: $20 ($ 17 for students and seniors); admission to tonight's performance is $13.

Information: To buy tickets, call 734-971-2228; visit; or go to the A2CT office at 322 W. Ann St.