Chicago Theatre Review
The Saddest Guy
Funnyman – Northlight Theatre
Chick Sherman is a former Vaudeville comic, now attempting to restart his career years later. He’s been reduced to filming television commercials for an antacid product, dressed as a chubby little boy and spouting his signature interjection, “Wowza!” However, Chick’s longtime friend and manager Milt “Junior” Karp has found his client a play that would jumpstart his career in live theatre, while boosting the man’s ego. Adamant about never playing out-of-town, Chick considers doing an avant guarde play, written by a noteworthy southern gay playwright, Victor LaPlant, and directed by a famous, young New York theatre and film director, Matthew Baroni. It’s not exactly big-time Broadway, but Off-Broadway and experimental, without the usual added perks and large paycheck Chick has come to expect.
Chick’s adult daughter, Katharine, with whom he shares his tiny apartment, has been trying to communicate with her dad. It’s been an exercise in futility. Her MLS degree in hand, Katharine’s landed a prestigious position at Carnegie Hall, archiving material from past productions for their library. She’s also struck up a friendship with her coworker, Nathan Wise, the son of a famous playwright team. As the play progresses, so does their relationship. As Katharine reluctantly succumbs to personal happiness and professional self-fulfillment, she also longs to learn about her deceased mother, who died when Katharine was just a little girl.
Bruce Graham’s latest play, following the Northlight hit productions of his “Stella & Lou,” “The Outgoing Tide” and the recent “White Guy on the Bus,” understands how to craft a drama with just enough laughs to keep the story from turning depressing. With its modest running time of just under two hours, Graham’s new play gets right to the point without a lot of exposition. We see a man who’s used to being treated with awe and respect for his comic genius suddenly having to change his trajectory and dig into some personal drama, mining the serious side of his nature for his art. Mr. LaPlant’s absurdist drama, “In Lucy’s Kitchen,” which the audience never sees performed, is supposed to be dark and dramatic, yet filled with an underlying humor that only a brilliant comic like Chick Sherman can play. In many ways, Graham’s play mirrors this intention.
Despite a myriad of theatrical credits, from Broadway to London to Second City, with several other Chicago performances, as well, George Wendt is probably best-known for his portrayal Norm on the hit TV series, “Cheers.” Mr. Wendt’s portrayal of Chick Sherman offers a well of deep, unexpected emotion. Chick’s called “the saddest man I’ve ever met,” by one of the characters, and this sorrow is carefully underplayed by Wendt with skill. Buried beneath years of popularity as a skilled vaudeville comic, Chick harbors a life of pain, guilt and misery. His inability to connect with Katharine reflects how his hidden past has stifled him emotionally. Supported by both his manager and an alcoholic playwright, Mr. Wendt’s sad clown blossoms and discovers once again what it means to feel. The actor’s relationship with his daughter evolves into a wonderful, heartfelt moment that audiences will remember.
Amanda Drinkall, one of Chicago’s finest young actresses, is perky but perplexed at her father’s reticence about the life and death of the mother she never knew. She brings a jubilant playfulness to her relationship with Nathan, played with equal enthusiasm and adoration by Chicago newcomer, Michael Perez. The two have immediate chemistry in their relationship, which nicely balances with Ms. Drinkall’s strained kinship with her father. Tim Kazurinsky, whose comic talents have, like Wendt, also included television (three years at SNL), Second City and many theatrical appearances, is brilliant as the straight man, playing Chick’s manager, Milt. This man loves and cares so much about his friend and client that it’s almost painful. He’s sometimes ill-treated by Chick, even as Milt goes after Matthew Baroni, the arrogant director of “In Lucy’s Kitchen,” with the ferocity of an angered parent. Despite everything, Milt is always looking out for his friend. His tender relationship with Katharine is sweet and caring, as well, demonstrating Mr. Kazurinsky’s ease in switching emotional gears on a dime.
Steve Haggard, another of Chicago’s finest talents, is terrific. He plays a no-nonsense, business-oriented director who clashes with both Chick and Milt. Matthew Baroni’s foul mouth and bulldozer methods of interacting with Chick results in his running up against a wall, through which he can’t budge, and his frustration is obvious. Rob Lindley, generally regarded as a musical actor, is delightful and lovable as a Tennessee Williams-like southern playwright, with an addiction to the bottle. Lindley’s Victor LaPlant adores Chick Sherman and sees in this tortured soul a bit of himself, the essence of the leading character in his new play. Lindley nicely plays the father/son relationship between these two theatrical artists with sensitivity and respect.
This fine production is staged by BJ Jones with care and compassion, allowing his six experienced actors to live naturally through Bruce Graham’s well-scripted characters. Mr. Jones has gently tapped into the comedy while still bringing the play’s tender, affecting sentiment to the forefront. This production is a theatrical triumph for both George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky and offers a wonderful opportunity for audiences to enjoy the talents of these two terrific actors, as well as their supporting cast.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 11-October 18 by Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.