Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: CLOWN BAR (Pipeline Theatre Company at The Box)

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by Paul Birchall on July 4, 2014

in Theater-New York

RAISING THE CLOWN BAR

Did the TV series It give you nightmares for decades?  Does the art of John Wayne Gacy make you tremble?  Does dear old Bozo make you break out in hives?  If you suffer from coulrophobia – a fear of clowns – then Clown Bar, a site-specific production full of energy and charm, might be your ticket to freaking out.  Not only does this show boast an abundance of ubiquitous clowns, but they are far more similar to the clowns of your nightmares than the cheery jolly buffoons of your childhood circus days.

Salty Brine in CLOWN BAR.

Adam Szymkowicz’s play is described as a “clown noir,” but our experience is about far more than just the text.  As we arrive, audience members are lined up along one side of a velvet rope, like we’re awaiting entry into one of Manhattan’s most popular night clubs.  And, indeed, once we’re checked in by the red nose-wearing doorperson, and have been walked past the burly black-clad bouncers, we find ourselves in what appears to be a gorgeous Prohibition-style speakeasy, one which has been gaily caparisoned with portraits of famous clowns, murals of clown artwork, and bordello lamps and dinner tables.

Michael Lorz and Allison Smith in CLOWN BAR.

Clown waiters and bartenders whisk about, taking our orders supper club-style, as a delightful crooning clown, Dusty (Salty Brine), serenades us with horrible jokes and disturbing, clown-like ditties.  Dinner is served (that cost is extra, a not entirely pleasant clownish surprise) and there are yummy drinks, including the delicious libation “Sex With a Clown,” which tastes precisely like an Orange Creamsicle with Cointreau.

Salty Brine, Ian Axness and Jessica Frey in CLOWN BAR.

The play commences shortly after we’ve downed our supper, and it’s ultimately a rather straightforward gumshoe Chandler-esque mystery tale.  Happy (Shane Ziegler) is an ex-clown who abandoned wearing Clown Shoes to become a flatfoot detective.  He arrives at the Clown Bar to investigate the horrific murder of his own younger brother, Timmy (Dan Tracy), a tragically unfunny clown shot dead in a blaze of gunfire during his act.  The clowns at the Clown Bar regard Happy, who has turned his back on the life of clownery, as a bit of a turncoat, and try to strong-arm him from confronting prime suspect BoBo (Andrew Foster), the brutal chief clown-gangster owner of the Clown Bar.

Daniel Johnsen and Shane Zeigler in CLOWN BAR.

Happy briefly enjoys a fling with his former sweetheart, clown femme fatale Blinky (Claire Rothrock); their lovemaking involves a giant cream pie – splatted in the face – and a pair of clown noses.  Soon, he confronts Bobo.  Bullets are fired, clown corpses fall to the ground, and the unexpected solution to the mystery turns out to have been right under our clown noses the entire time.

Amir Wachterman and Willy Appelman in CLOWN BAR.

There is really quite a lot to enjoy in director Andew Neisler’s beguilingly immersive production, which truly crafts an escapist experience.  Everything leading right up to the play itself – the space (which challenges conceptions of the Fourth Wall), the music by Adam Overett, the food – is delightful.  For better or worse, you really feel like you’re in this world of killer clowns and the atmosphere the show creates possesses the moodiness of a carnival after dark.

Jessica Frey, Amir Wachterman, Daniel Johnsen, and Willy Appelman in CLOWN BAR.

The overall grim mood might also cut to the piece’s main problem:  It’s far too much noir, and not enough clown.  The actors all wear clown make up, yes, but it’s not clear if anyone has had any bona fide clown training.  They laugh like clowns, but beyond that, the comic elements of a clown world are quite reined in.  It takes more than clown make-up and a red nose to be a clown – it takes comic timing and material that allows the performers to actually be funny.  The play’s attempts at time-honored goofy shtick come across as halfhearted.

Amir Wachterman and Shane Zeigler in CLOWN BAR.

Really, for a comedy spoof of noir movies, the production is undercut by a surprisingly glum mood.  There’s not much merriment, and while the clowns are occasionally quite terrifying (particularly Foster’s bloodthirsty Bobo), they would lose their gigs at a real circus in about twenty minutes.  The cast do the best they can, of course, with the highlights being Brine’s charmingly Paul Lynde-like turn as the crooner clown Dusty and Rothrock’s lusciously sensual clown fatale, Blinky.  Zeigler, wonderfully deadpan as the “just the facts” clown detective, is also a delight.

Claire Rothrock in CLOWN BAR.

However, the threadbare premise, oddly lackluster plotting that could sustain a 15-minute Saturday Night Live skit, and the attempts to tell an archetypal noir mystery (albeit with clowns) lead to a show that’s formulaic more than festive.

Dan Tracy in CLOWN BAR.photos by Suzi Sadler

Clown Bar
Pipeline Theatre Company
The Box | 189 Chrystie St
Saturdays at 7:30
scheduled to end on August 23, 2014
EXTENDED to September 27, 2014
for tickets, call 800-838-3006
or visit www.brownpapertickets.com
for more info, visit Pipeline

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