Review: ‘Funnyman’ at Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia

Funnyman is making its World Premiere at the Arden Theatre Company, and it’s a winner. The play follows an aging great comic actor who is yearning to know what it means to really be funny in a serious business. The play, set in 1959 New York City, follows Chick Sherman (Carl N. Wallnau), as he struggles to find his place in a post-WWII world. Chick’s daughter Katherine (Emilie Krause), adds to the story by searching for her origins as she uncovers the mystery surrounding her mother’s death. Comedy shifts into drama in this beautifully crafted piece by local playwright Bruce Graham. Matt Pfieffer directs a bold and talented ensemble and crafts many poignant moments that parallel life on stage with the life of a comic’s vanishing career.

Emilie Krause and Brian Cowden. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Emilie Krause and Brian Cowden. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The play is superbly lit by Thom Weaver and costumed to perfection by Alison Robert. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set design, and black and white clips from TV commercials take us on a nostalgic trip back to the 1950s, while Videographer Jorge Cousineau gives us a peek into Chick’s career and his many talents. The magnificent team of designers transports the audience back to a time that was slowly shifting from gimmicky theatre to more experimental explorations.

Even though the show was a bit slow to start, it ramped up immediately upon Playwright Victor La Plant’s entrance, played by the ever-clever, Keith Conallen.

Playwright Bruce Graham wrote Funnyman after reading Confessions of a Cowardly Lion by John Lahr. His dialogue, though often tender, was able to punch out some incredible one-liners and give his characters a true language of their own.

Emilie Krause plays the fierce daughter Katherine with grace and strength and holds her own against ‘the boys’ who are out to play – and they do play well! Carl N. Wallnau balances the difficult role of Chick Sherman with apparent ease, while Wallnau’s portrayal of a comic genius and emotionally damaged father is balanced perfectly and allows the audience to laugh one second and cry the next.

Kenny Morris as Junior, Chick Sherman’s long-time agent, is grounded, heart-breaking, and wise. Brian Cowden is the lovable Nathan Wise, and is endearing and intelligently hilarious. Keith Conallen, as the flamboyant playwright Victor La Plant, is a standout with his flawless comedic timing. Conallen morphs effortlessly into the skin of this character and every move he makes on the stage is watched with anticipation and glee. Charlie DelMarcelle is passionate as Director Matthew Baroni.

Carl N. Wallnau (Chick Sherman). Photo by Mark Garvin.
Carl N. Wallnau (Chick Sherman). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Funnyman is a show that challenges the stereotype that comedy is easy, and dives into the lives of characters challenging their pasts. It is a triumphant story that does justice to the struggle of many comedians who live a life far less funny than their stage personas. It’s a roller coaster of emotions.

Funnyman is another triumph for prolific local playwright Bruce Graham and The Arden.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, plus one intermission.

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Funnyman plays through March 6, 2016 at Arden Theatre Company – 40 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.