- About the Play
- Behind the Scenes
- Photo Gallery
- Audience Guide
The Roughest Act: The Vaudeville Childhood of Buster Keaton
The character of esteemed comic Chick Sherman in Funnyman is a composite of many of America's most celebrated performers of the early 20th century--and his life story is pulled from the biographies of some of the actors, comics, and performers he is modeled after. For instance, his rough-and-tumble vaudeville childhood mirrors the early upbringing of American silent-film star, Buster Keaton.
Born Joseph Frank Keaton, he earned the nickname, "Buster" after an incident where, at six months old, young Joseph Keaton fell down a flight of stairs--arriving at the bottom unharmed and amused--after which family friend Harry Houdini said, "What a buster your kid took!"
Though the veracity of these claims can be disputed, young Buster did indeed appear onstage next to his mother and father at age three as part of "The Three Keatons," the self-proclaimed, "roughest act that was ever in the history of the stage." A natural performer, he spent much of his childhood mugging behind his father, as the elder Keaton monologued and threw his son across the stage to the crowd's delight.
As the family toured across the nation, it had to avoid the auspices of the Gerry Society, the world's first child protection agency named for co-founder Elbridge Thomas Gerry. When the Keatons reached New York, the Gerry Society forbade Buster from performing with his parents, a prospect which devastated him. Taking the law into their own hands, the Keatons would smuggle their young son onstage in the guise of a midget performer, or perform at venues away from the Gerry Society's auspices. The act became a massive success.
Buster learned the arts of dance, magic, escape artistry, singing, juggling, and ukulele from the most talented vaudeville performers of the day, including his godfather, Houdini. Despite his relish for performance, the family often found themselves at the hands of the authorities who presumed Buster to be a victim of abuse. Many occasions involved Buster stripping down to prove he was free of scrapes and bruises.
Ironically, it was only as Buster was well into his teens that his father became a harmful presence in his life, his carelessness and intoxication nearly causing Buster grievous injury. When he was old enough, Buster left the family act and struck out on his own, and soon achieved even greater fame as "The Great Stoneface" of the silent film era.
Lahr and Mercedes: A Tragedy in Two Acts
Chick Sherman's tragic marriage is inspired by the tempestuous relationship that the famous Broadway comic and actor Bert Lahr had with his first wife, Mercedes. Bert Lahr met Mercedes Delpino in his days on the burlesque circuit. She was a chorus girl and he was a comedian sharing space on a variety-show playbill in 1916. Bert and Mercedes were inseparable both on and off-stage for more than a decade. They co-starred in a vaudeville act alternatively titled, "What's the Idea?" and "The Limb of the Law" in which a young woman is accosted by a bumbling police officer while she dances on the sidewalk. Crowds loved their on-stage chemistry, and they soon found work across the country, with frequent billing on Broadway.
While not touring, they split their time between the Forrest Hotel in New York City and a cabin on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, where they unofficially married in a private ceremony. Lahr's commitment to his act started to create a rift in their relationship, and fights between the two lovers became common. Tragedy struck when Mercedes' nephew died of rheumatic fever. While Lahr made the successful solo transition from vaudeville to Broadway, Mercedes slipped into a depression which would compound itself upon the death of her mother, Isabel.
Home life became fractured and cold. Mercedes soon took to drinking, and would arrive intoxicated at performances. Mercedes became pregnant with Lahr's first child, and the two were officially married in 1929. Lahr hoped that motherhood would lift her from her depression, but the hopes proved frail when Mercedes set fire to their hotel room. She was discovered (and rescued) by Flo Haley, the wife of Lahr's friend and eventual Wizard of Oz co-star Jack Haley.
After the birth of their son, Lahr hired several nurses to care for mother and child alike. He eventually received a call that Mercedes was dangling their son out the window of their hotel room. In an effort to treat his wife, Lahr took his son and nurse on a tour while Mercedes traveled through Europe with her sister--a trip cut short due to Mercedes' drinking and withdrawn demeanor. Eventually, her behavior grew more dire and she was committed to a sanitarium on April 27, 1930. Though she would eventually move to Arizona with her sister, the memories of Mercedes would haunt Lahr for decades afterwards. When she died in 1965, Bert Lahr didn't speak a word for three days.
AMANADA DRINKALL (Katharine Sherman) Recent Chicago credits include Last Train to Nibroc (Haven), White Guy on the Bus (Northlight), Venus in Fur and Measure for Measure (Goodman), Rest (Victory Gardens), Great Expectations (Strawdog), Pride and Prejudice (Lifeline), and numerous plays with The Back Room Shakespeare Project including Othello, As You Like It and The Tempest. As an ensemble member of Red Tape, her credits include hamlet is dead. no gravity, Lear, The Skriker, Brand, The Love of the Nightingale and Pullman, WA. Regional credits: Michigan Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet and North Carolina Shakespeare's King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing. Film credits: The View from Tall. Ms. Drinkall holds a BFA in acting performance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
STEVE HAGGARD (Matthew Baroni) returns to Northlight where he was last seen in Season's Greetings and She Stoops to Conquer. Recent Chicago credits: Doubt: A Parable (Writers), Accidentally Like a Martyr and The Aliens (A Red Orchid), Tribes (Steppenwolf), Wasteland (Timeline), King Lear (Chicago Shakespeare). Regional credits: American Players, Milwaukee Repertory and Indiana Repertory. Steve is an ensemble member of A Red Orchid and a graduate of The Theatre School at DePaul University. Love and thanks to K, M and Q.
TIM KAZURINSKY (Milt "Junior" Karp) After 14 months on the road as the Wizard of Oz in Wicked and 4 months on Broadway as the Angel Gabriel in An Act of God, Tim is thrilled to be back home and at Northlight. Other stage credits include: Old Jews Telling Jokes (Royal George), The Odd Couple (Northlight), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chicago Shakespeare), Hairspray (Drury Lane), The Bicycle Men (Lakeshore) and three revues at The Second City. TV credits include: Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1981- 84), Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO), Dinner at Eight (TCM) and The Princess and the Pea (Faerie Tale Theatre). Film credits include: Police Academy II, III, & IV, My Bodyguard, Continental Divide, Neighbors, About Last Night..., Somewhere In Time, Shakes the Clown, and I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With. Screenwriting credits include: About Last Night..., For Keeps, The Cherokee Kid and Strange Relations, for which he received WGA and BAFTA nominations.
ROB LINDLEY (Victor LaPlant) is making his Northlight debut. Other acting credits include: The Secret Garden, James Joyce's "The Dead," Angels in America: Parts 1 & 2, Caroline or Change and Carousel (Court); Bach at Liepzing, Oh Coward! (Writers); Candide (Goodman); Wings (Appletree); Urinetown (Mercury); The Most Happy Fella (Ravinia); A New Brain, Sweeney Todd, Closer Than Ever (Porchlight). Directing credits: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (Porchlight) and the musical parody 50 Shades!: The Musical, which played around the country and Off-Broadway. Rob won a Jeff Award for his performance in Oh Coward! and his cabaret trio Foiled Again has won an After Dark Award for Outstanding Cabaret Performance. Foiled Again's album Blanket of Winter is available on iTunes and CDbaby.com. This winter Rob will direct the musical version of Far From Heaven at Porchlight. A big thank you goes out to BJ and Lynn.
MICHAEL PEREZ (Nathan Wise) is a California native who has found an artistic home here in Chicago. Chicago credits include Short Shakes! Macbeth (Chicago Shakespeare), The Liar (Writers), The Foreigner (Provision) and three winters in A Christmas Carol (Goodman). He's done outdoor Shakespeare with American Players, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, Door Shakespeare and Riverside Theatre. Michael is a proud stakeholder of the Back Room Shakespeare Project.
GEORGE WENDT (Chick Sherman) Broadway credits include: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Elf, Art, Hairspray. London credits: Art. Off-Broadway: An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf (Primary Stages), Wild Men (West Side Theatre). National Tour: Twelve Angry Men (Roundabout). Chicago credits: Rounding Third (Northlight), The Second City, Wild Men, Bleacher Bums (Organic). Los Angeles and Edinburgh: Re-Animator the Musical. Oodles of film and television, most recently Clipped from Warner Brothers TV and TBS, and most notably Cheers (six Emmy nominations).
STEVE PRINGLE (u/s Chick/Milt) is returning to Northlight where he played Sidney Greenstreet in Ten Chimneys. Chicago credits: A Christmas Carol (Goodman); First Look (Steppenwolf); Pitmen Painters (Timeline - Jeff Award Production); Annie (Paramount); Pal Joey (Porchlight); Faith Healer (Buffalo Theater Ensemble); The Madness of King George the Third, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew (Chicago Shakespeare); Without a Parachute (Pasta Fazool Players - Direction); The Passion of Dracula (First Folio). Regional Theater: The Rainmaker (Guthrie); Arms and the Man, Custer, The Farm (Actors Theatre of St. Paul - founding member); The Mousetrap, Pajama Tops (Old Log); Guys and Dolls, Robber Bridegroom, On Golden Pond (Chanhassen). Film: That Was Then This is Now, Roundabout American. Television: Low Winter Sun (AMC), Quincy (CBS). The Police (PBS). Recipient of the Edwin Booth Award from the American College Theater Festival by The Player's Club of New York.
BJ JONES (Director/Artistic Director) is in his 18th season as Artistic Director of Northlight, where he commissioned and directed the world premieres of White Guy on the Bus, Chapatti, Stella & Lou, The Outgoing Tide (Jeff Nomination - Best Director), Better Late, and Rounding Third. Notably he has directed productions of Outside Mullingar, Grey Gardens, The Price (Jeff Nomination- Best Director), A Skull in Connemara, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. As a producer he has guided the world premieres of Shining Lives, The Last Five Years, The Gamester, and Studs Terkel's 'The Good War'. From Second City to Shakespeare, BJ has directed Pitmen Painters (Jeff Nomination - Best Director, TimeLine), A Number (Next), 100 Saints You Should Know (Steppenwolf), and The Dresser (Body Politic). Regional: Glengarry Glen Ross (Suzie Bass Nominee - Best Director, Atlanta's Alliance Theatre), Enchanted April (Asolo Theatre), and productions at Cherry Lane Theatre NY, Galway Arts Festival, Baltimore Center Stage, and Utah Shakespeare Festival. As a performer, Mr. Jones is a two-time Joseph Jefferson Award winner and has appeared at Northlight, Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court, and other theatres throughout Chicago. Film/TV credits include The Fugitive, Body Double, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Early Edition, Cupid, and Turks, among others.
JEFFREY D KMIEC (Scenic Design) is a Chicago-based scenic designer, whose local credits include: Tom Jones, The Commons of Pensacola (Northlight); A Christmas Story, Les Miserables (Paramount); Spelling Bee (Drury Lane - Oakbrook); Lady Day at Emerson›s Bar and Grill, Double Trouble, Ain't Misbehavin', Sweeney Todd, Sondheim on Sondheim (Porchlight); Good Boys and True, Dividing the Estate, The Old Friends (Raven); Watch on the Rhine (The Artistic Home). Regional credits include: American Players, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Arkansas Shakespeare, Heritage Theatre Festival and the Children's Theatre of Charlotte. Jeffrey received his MFA from the University of Virginia.
RACHEL LARITZ (Costume Design) is happy to be joining Northlight for the 18th time including last season's Outside Mullingar and White Guy on the Bus. Other design credits include various shows at: Chicago Shakespeare, Writers, Court, Steppenwolf First Look, Remy Bumppo, TimeLine, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Milwaukee Rep, Kansas City Rep, Illinois Shakespeare, Next Act, Chamber, Renaissance Theaterworks, Skylight Music Theatre, Arkansas Shakespeare, Peninsula Players and the University of Michigan. Off- Broadway: Pearl Theatre. Other professional credits: NBC's Law & Order, American Players Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Garsington Opera and the Spoleto Festival USA. Rachel is a recipient of a 2011 Emerging Artist Alumni Award from the University of Michigan and a 2009 Joseph Jefferson Award for The Voysey Inheritance (Remy Bumppo). Rachellaritz.com
JESSE KLUG (Lighting Design) National Tour of The Screwtape Letters. Off Broadway: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Second Stage, Lortel and Hewes Nomination), The Screwtape Letters (Westside Arts), Romulus (Guggenheim Museum), The Hourglass (NYMTF). Chicago: Northlight, Chicago Shakespeare, Drury Lane, Goodman, Victory Gardens, Lookingglass, Steppenwolf, Court, Writers, Marriott, TimeLine, American Theatre Company, Noble Fool, Chicago Dramatists, American Theatre Company. Regional: Fulton Theatre, Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, Portland Center Stage, Boars Head Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Milwaukee Repertory. Resident Lighting Designer for Drury Lane, Route 66 and Chicago Tap Theatre. Jeff and After Dark award winner. www.jessekluglightingdesign.com
ANDREW HANSEN (Original Music & Sound Design) returns to Northlight where he previously collaborated on Outside Mullingar, White Guy on the Bus, Tom Jones, Stella & Lou, The Outgoing Tide, She Stoops to Conquer and Mauritius. Andy is an Associate Artist at TimeLine where he has been designing since 1999. Current productions include The Price (TimeLine). Regionally he has composed for American Players, Indiana Rep, Summer Shakespeare at Notre Dame and Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.
STEPHAN MAZUREK (Projection Design) is a photographer, documentarian and story teller. Stephan's projection design for Northlight includes: Shining Lives, Better Late (Larry Gelbart & Craig Wright), and Three Women Talking (Arnold Wesker). Other projection design credits include: Russian Transport, The Wheel, Tempest, Sonja Flew, The Cherry Orchard and Of Mice and Men all seen at Steppenwolf. stephanmazurek.com
RITA VREELAND (Production Stage Manager) Funnyman is Rita's fourth Bruce Graham world premiere production. This show marks the beginning of her 9th season here at Northlight, where she has been fortunate to be the stage manager for 22 productions as well as two trips to Galway. Recent credits elsewhere in the Chicagoland area include the annual Christmas Schooner (Mercury); Little Shop of Horrors and many other productions at Theatre at the Center; and the world premieres of A Twist of Water (Route66), El Nogalar (Goodman) and We Are Proud to Present... (Victory Gardens). Rita is the proud wife of actor Tom Hickey and mom to two-year-old Charlie. Thank you for supporting live theatre.
BRUCE GRAHAM (Playwright) Plays: White Guy on the Bus, Stella & Lou, The Outgoing Tide (2011 Jeff Award - Best New Play), Burkie, Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar & Grille, Moon Over the Brewery, Belmont Avenue Social Club, Desperate Affection, Coyote on a Fence (Winner of The Rosenthal Prize, Two Drama Desk Nominations), According to Goldman, The Philly Fan, Mister Hart and Mister Brown. He has won consecutive Barrymore Awards for Best New Play for Something Intangible and Any Given Monday. Film: Dunston Checks In, Anastasia, Steal This Movie. TV: Roseanne, Ring of Endless Light (Humanitas Award Winner - Best Children's Screenplay), The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Trading Christmas. Graham is a past winner of the Princess Grace Foundation Statuette. Along with Michele Volansky, he is the author of the book The Collaborative Playwright. Graham teaches film and theatre courses at Drexel University. He divides his time between South Philly and Elkton, Maryland, with Stephanie.
Production photos by Michael Brosilow below, or view opening night and rehearsal and set construction photos.
Photo GalleryClick on any image to start the slideshow
Click on an image to watch the video.
FUNNYMAN scene 1
FUNNYMAN scene 2
Chicago Tonight interview
Interview with Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones
Funnyman visits the dark night of George Wendt's soul
September 20, 2015
By CHRIS JONES
George Wendt - the much-loved comic actor, former improviser and Cheers star, the man saddled for life with an open-for-business sign on the Norm Petting Zoo - goes to some very dark places in Funnyman, the world-premiere drama at the Northlight Theatre about an old-school comic in 1959 with a wretched family life, a tortured soul, and copious amounts of coiled-up anger at the lousy world. Indeed, I'll venture that some of da Wendt's many Chicago superfans who find their way to Skokie will leave uttering some version of "I didn't know George could do that."
Before Friday night, neither did I.
I'm not making claims that the playwright Bruce Graham is up there up with Eugene O'Neill (although Funnyman is not too shabby), but Wendt's somber, pained, unstinting turn in this play reminded me of nothing so much as what Nathan Lane was trying to do in The Iceman Cometh. As Wendt's character, Chick Sherman, notes in the play: "Nobody takes comics seriously until they do something serious." Great comics come to see that.
Wendt is doing something serious here, all right. Graham has given him plenty of fodder for an actor with his particular trajectory: Chick, a consummate craftsman, now has to deal with shoddy new material; irritating, over-educated young directors with no respect for the old-school craft; and, well, the ghosts of a long career in show business and all the sacrifices that has engendered, and all the bad personal decisions it tempted.
Sherman's old catchphrase - and the noose around his neck now - is "Wowza!" "People stop me on the street all the time," he growls. "'Say something funny!'" We all have a Wowza! - the one thing that people think we do and that we're sick of doing. Perchance Norm is Wendt's "Wowza!" He keeps on giving. Cheers!
George Wendt earns title in Northlight's Funnyman
September 21, 2015
By BARBARA VITELLO
Sight gags get laughs.
Playwright Bruce Graham knows it and uses one to great effect in his solid new dramedy Funnyman, which premiered to a chorus of belly laughs from Northlight Theatre's near capacity audience.
I won't spoil the scene, except to say it involves Emmy-nominated George Wendt as you've never seen him before. And in more ways than one.
Funnyman fulfills the promise of its title, particularly with the "inside" show biz bits. The performances are solid (Second City veterans Wendt and Kazurinsky have great chemistry) and the play benefits from the quietly assured, unfussy direction of BJ Jones, who has helmed four previous Graham commissions for Northlight. Jones knows Graham and he knows comic actors.
In a 2014 interview with the Daily Herald, John Mahoney (Frasier) said Jones "delves deeper than most directors ... He won't settle for what he's seen you do a thousand times. He makes sure you use every weapon in your arsenal."
That's true of Wendt, who reveals the ache in the soul of a man who arms himself with shtick so he doesn't have to feel. His deeply felt portrayal suggests an actor who possesses greater weapons than he has so far displayed. Here's hoping we get to see them again.
Review: Funnyman/Northlight Theatre
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ????
AROUND THE TOWN CHICAGO
September 20, 2015
By ALAN BRESLOFF
I suppose people seeing the name George Wendt on the billboard for a play titled Funnyman will enter the theater ready to hear the old familiar "Norm" called out as the lights come up. After all, most people know him for the role he created on Cheers all those years ago. Ladies and gentlemen, please be advised that Mr. Wendt is indeed an actor and can play many roles, which he more than proves in this beautiful story about a fading vaudeville comic who many only remember from his signature "Wowza"! Could this tight story written by Bruce Graham, now on the stage at Northlight Theatre, in reality be "his own story"?
Going into this play, try to think about the differences between clown, comedian and comic. While all are on the stage to make us laugh, it is a fine line between what they do. The comedian tells us stories and does bits that have a punchline, the clown does silly things that are out of reality and the comic does more with sight gags and perhaps a trademark. Chick was known for his pants dropping sight gags and his "Wowza". Fans loved him (or hated him), but none could get close enough to know that deep down, he was a different persona than they saw on the stage. I was impressed with the set (Jeffrey D Kmiec) that allowed us to go between Chick's home, Katherine's workplace, Junior's office and the small Off Broadway theater swiftly. The sound (Andrew Hansen), Lighting (Jesse Klug), projection design (Stephen Mazurek) and props( Kurtis Boetcher) completed the picture that Jones and Graham placed before us.
It is a beautiful story, well written and directed to perfection with a dynamite cast telling a story that will take your breath away, and possibly bring a tear to your eye. The life of a comic is often taken for granted. People “assume” their lives are wonderful and they laugh all the time. The truth is, they are private and often sad people who have the desire to compensate for their own lives by bringing laughter to others.. I suggest that you put this one on the see list!
The Saddest Guy
CHICAGO THEATRE REVIEW
September 25, 2015
By COLIN DOUGLAS
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.
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. 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.
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.
This guide is suitable for audience members of all ages. Included in the Funnyman guide:
- A biography and interview with the playwright
- A detailed synopsis
- Character descriptions
- Similarities between the title character and real-life vaudevillians of the past
- A vaudeville timeline
- A look at theatre of the absurd and its relevance to the play
- Discussion questions
- Recommendations for further reading