There’s a classic scene in Goodfellas, in which Tommy DeVito decides to screw with Henry Hill, pouncing on an off-hand comment: “I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you?” It’s a moment of levity in a rather serious film, as opposed to Adam Szymkowicz’s clown noir, Clown Bar, in which a serious murder hovers over a comic cabaret; the two share nothing in common, save for the fact that both are brilliant, and that both are going to fuckin’ amuse you–by force, if necessary. At just over an hour, Clown Bar is structurally the tightest work I’ve seen from Szymkowicz (who has plenty of solid plays under his belt, like the recent Hearts Like Fists or the powerful Pretty Theft): it’s packed as densely as a clown car, and I’m not just referring to the transformed back room of the Parkside Lounge (which includes several running gags involving the limited space). From the various posters spread across the walls (“Warning: Children left unattended will be sold to the circus”) to the drink menu (which features “Giggles,” “Red Noses,” and the “Extra Funny”–a shot of Jamison’s, naturally), Szymkowicz rarely misses the opportunity for a joke and, more impressively, only repeats himself in the sense that he follows the rule of threes. In one ambitious and fast-paced summary of the troupe’s former act, the clowns jump from the physical (“The Invisible Slug”) to the literal (“Trouble at the Sistine Chapel”) to the Python-esque (“Egg Beater”) and finally the cerebral (“Existentialism,” which is worth the price of admission on its own), all within a few minutes.
In any case, the man who walks into this clown bar is the very serious, square-jawed Happy Mahoney (Shane Zeigler), a talented former clown drawn back into the “seedy underbelly of organized clown crime” after the murder of his happy-go-lucky brother, Timmy (a fast-talking Dan Tracy). In the mix, naturally, are his former flame, the burlesque-dancing femme fatale Blinky (Claire Rothrock), and the banana-eating, biggest-bowtie wearing boss, Bobo (Andrew Farmer), plus a wide variety of talented and scene-stealing stooges, like the mood-swinging, increasingly high-pitched Shotgun (Willy Appelman) and the ornery, vocabulary-challenged Giggles (Amir Wachterman). Because variety is the spice of life or because everybody loves a three-ring circus, the show also features several original songs, written by Adam Overett and performed by the half-drunk, one-hundred-percent-snob Dusty (Noah Zachary) and his mime pianist (Ian Axness), and a bunch of squeaky (unclean) solicitations from Petunia (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), the local clownstitute. (Her half-off special: “I’ll get you half off for free. If you want me to get you all the way off, it’ll cost you.”) Oh, and mentally unbalanced Joker-like clowns? Sober, overly intelligent clowns? This show’s got them, too: blood-stained Popo (Jessica Frey) and meticulous Twinkles (Daniel Johnsen) are worlds apart, yet they both fit in perfectly within the atmospheric Clown Bar.
I’m a fairly demanding audience member, and yet I can’t think of a single thing more I could ask of Andrew Neisler’s direction: he’s assembled an impeccable crew. Ben Hobbs manages to choreograph a big romantic dance scene between the audience-filled tables, Turner Smith’s fight direction feels dangerous without ever putting the inches-away audience at risk, and while Meghan Gaber’s costumes (and makeup?) would be eye-catching at any distance, they hold up under close scrutiny. Szymkowicz’s flashback-heavy scenes call for a lot of lighting cues–something that’d be tough even in a full-fledged theater–so kudos to stage manager Kristin Bodall and Robert Wuss’s lighting design for keeping everything on track. There’s not a streak out of place in Clown Bar‘s greasepaint; I can’t think of a better nightcap than the shot of extra funny currently being served by Pipeline Theatre Company.
Press ticket; general admission.