George Wendt earns title in Northlight's 'Funnyman'

  • George Wendt, left, plays an aging comic desperate for his professional "second act" and Tim Kazurinsky plays the longtime agent looking to give it to him in Northlight Theatre's world premiere of "Funnyman," by Bruce Graham.

    George Wendt, left, plays an aging comic desperate for his professional "second act" and Tim Kazurinsky plays the longtime agent looking to give it to him in Northlight Theatre's world premiere of "Funnyman," by Bruce Graham. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Fading Broadway comic Chick Sherman (George Wendt, right) agrees to do a contemporary play off-Broadway to the delight of its author Victor LaPlant (Rob Lindley) in Bruce Graham's dramedy "Funnyman," in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

    Fading Broadway comic Chick Sherman (George Wendt, right) agrees to do a contemporary play off-Broadway to the delight of its author Victor LaPlant (Rob Lindley) in Bruce Graham's dramedy "Funnyman," in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • At the urging of her boyfriend Nathan (Michael Perez, center), Katharine Sherman (Amanda Drinkall) tries to impress her estranged father (George Wendt) by doing some of his shtick in "Funnyman," running through Oct. 18 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

    At the urging of her boyfriend Nathan (Michael Perez, center), Katharine Sherman (Amanda Drinkall) tries to impress her estranged father (George Wendt) by doing some of his shtick in "Funnyman," running through Oct. 18 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Chick Sherman's longtime agent Milt (Tim Kazurinsky, right) tries to persuade a hot young director (Steve Haggard) to hire his client for an off-Broadway show in "Funnyman," a combination backstage comedy and family drama by Jeff Award-winner Bruce Graham.

    Chick Sherman's longtime agent Milt (Tim Kazurinsky, right) tries to persuade a hot young director (Steve Haggard) to hire his client for an off-Broadway show in "Funnyman," a combination backstage comedy and family drama by Jeff Award-winner Bruce Graham. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Updated 9/21/2015 5:58 PM

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.

Wendt (the affable Norm on TV's long-running "Cheers") plays irascible Chick Sherman, the titular funny man partly inspired by Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz") and vaudeville veteran turned silent movie star Buster Keaton.

"Funny is hard work," insists Chick. And for him, comedy is a serious business that masks a lifetime of pain.

By 1959, when the play unfolds, work has dried up for the former Broadway comic and Ziegfeld Follies star reduced to guest starring on TV variety shows and hawking an indigestion aid in commercials.

Chick's personal life isn't much better, as evidenced by his frosty relationship with daughter Katharine (the terrific Amanda Drinkall). Katharine, whose unresolved issues with her absent father dampen her budding romance with co-worker Nathan (Michael Perez), yearns to learn more about Chick and her late mother, who died when Katharine was a child.

Chick's most enduring relationship is with his warmhearted, longtime agent Milt (Tim Kazurinsky, a first-rate second banana). Milt proposes Chick do an absurdist off-Broadway play by an up-and-coming playwright (Rob Lindley), directed by an auteur from Yale (Steve Haggard) who doesn't appreciate Chick's humor.

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It's miles outside his comfort zone, but Chick agrees. The resulting clash between Chick's old-school ways and theater's new forms and attitudes is predictable. But it generates the biggest laughs in this combination backstage comedy/family drama.

"Funnyman" fulfills the promise of its title, particularly with the "inside" show biz bits. However, Graham ("White Guy on the Bus," "The Outgoing Tide") tends to pile on sentiment unnecessarily. Moreover, Chick and Katharine's attempts to reconcile the past sometimes feel contrived. Why, at 24, does Katharine suddenly want to know about her mother? And why, the era notwithstanding, won't Chick tell her the truth?

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.

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