Bruce Graham on his new play ‘Funnyman’, stand up comedy and the legacy of burlesque

 Bruce Graham at WHYY studios. (Jeanette Woods/WHYY)

Bruce Graham at WHYY studios. (Jeanette Woods/WHYY)

At the first preview performance of his new play “Funnyman,” Bruce Graham sat at the top row of the theater at the Arden — or sometimes he stood — and listened. He listened two ways. One way was to his words coming from the actors on the stage. Were they working? If not, was it a problem of the script, or the timing, or even something unforeseen? The second way he listened was to the audience. Were they laughing or not when he thought they would be? When the play heated into tensions and conflict, did they seem to be involved with it, even through their silence?

All playwrights do this as the evenings creep on to opening night, which would happen seven nights later. Graham, the prolific dean of Philadelphia-based playwrights who grew up in Ridley, Delaware County, and has been writing plays and sometimes films and TV shows for more than three decades, has now done this twice in a matter of months. This theater season, he has two world premieres here.

The first, “Rizzo,” was a play about the late, controversial police chief and mayor of Philadelphia, and if you could get a ticket after the run quickly sold out this past autumn, maybe you were Frank Rizzo’s cousin.  Graham adapted “Rizzo” from Sal Paolantonio’s  Rizzo biography, “The Last Big Man in Big City America.” Theatre Exile produced it. The play drew a constant stream of Philadelphians who were happy to witness a dramatic history they felt part of.

“Funnyman” at Arden Theatre Company — his second world premiere this season and the fourth new Bruce Graham play the Arden has opened over the years — is a different theatrical animal.  It’s fiction, but Graham bases its title character on many comics and comedians who’ve inspired him.

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The funnyman of the title, played at the Arden by Carl N. Wallnau, is an aging, has-been comic whose shtik is no longer popular or even very funny. As we see him attempt to make a comeback, the cracks in his personal life begin to show to his best-buddy agent, and to his daughter who feels estranged from him even when she’s sitting beside him. It’s a sad portrait of a man who lives for laughs.

Graham, about to turn 59, has written at least 21 plays that have been produced. (The at least comes because he shrugs when he tries to determine the number of play altogether, and not all of them are published or produced, and trackable by others.) His plays are fixtures in regional theaters around the United States — one of them, Moon Over the Brewery, is his most popularly staged work, about an unmarried mother of a teenage daughter in a Pennsylvania coal town. Several Graham plays are set in Philadelphia, or places that seem to be in Philadelphia. 

Graham sets “Funnyman” in New York in 1959, when burlesque was all but dead, television was about to make some comics famous and the notion of comedy as entertainment was about to change on the live stage. Graham himself began in stand-up and as a comedy writer. (Stand-up is a subject he teaches at Drexel, along with playwrighting.) “I did comedy for years and worked a lot of clubs with a lot of comedians and they are sad people for the most part,” he says. “They are slightly damaged. I’m lucky. I don’t think I’m as damaged. That’s why I got out of comedy.”

“Funnyman” is what’s called a “rolling world premiere” that opens in several theaters, one after another, each its own production. Between them, the playwright rewrites and rethinks the play, as Graham has done here in the past weeks before the Jan. 20 opening. He says the scariest time for him is not when it’s in production, but hearing it read the first time.

Graham’s play “The Outgoing Tide,” done by Philadelphia Theatre Company and then Delaware Theatre Company, is probably his most produced play this season, with more than a dozen stagings around the country. Its theme is one that many people in audiences grapple with — taking care of elderly parents. Like all of Graham’s work, it mixes comedy and drama as the plot unfolds. 

To listen to part of a conversation with Bruce Graham, click on the audio box at the top of this Web page. “Funnyman” runs through March 6 at Arden Theatre Company, Second Street north of Market Street. 

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