“Clown Bar” sends in, and up, everyone’s favorite punching bag, courtesy The NOLA Project

There were plenty of things to admire about The NOLA Project’s current mounting of “Clown Bar,” from its fitting location (the Little Gem Saloon’s upstairs bar, the Ramp Room) and Adam Szymkowicz’s clever interpretation (clowns as mob thugs) to director James Yeargain’s staging of all of the above. He’s brought to life everyone’s worst nightmare of a subculture we’ve long loved to hate, ridicule and often fear even when the main objective has been to laugh.

These are clowns as Goodfellas, bottom-feeders from a pulp nightmare, and in “Clown Bar” Yeargain has created a most unhappy hour that’s filled with the darkest possible laughs. Clown rules line one wall of the bar: “There are no rules in a clown bar,” “You better not try nothin’,” “What’s your business is your business. Don’t get in my business,” and so on. It’s all menacing caveat: You come to the clown bar at your own risk, because more often than not, you’ll never get out alive.

Szymkowicz’s script is clever by half in telling the story of a former clown, Happy Mahoney, who tried to leave the life by becoming a cop only to get sucked back in to find out who killed his younger and brother, Timmy (Levi Hood), whose minimal talent becomes increasingly apparent as he falls into a rabbit hole of addiction. (The irony being, getting high is supposed to make him funnier; instead it makes him worse.) The murder mystery creates a bittersweet reunion in the joint, with mob flunkie Twinkles (Richard Alexander Pomes), hooker Petunia (Natalie Boyd), former lover and bar burlesque dancer Blinky Fatale (Kali Russell), bar crooner and often drunk Dusty (Keith Claverie), henchmen Giggles and Shotgun (Clint Johnson, Alec Barnes), sweet psycho Popo (Jessica Amber Lozano) and the boss himself, Bobo (Kurt Owens).

Happy has to both reunite with and navigate his way around all of these lowlifes, not the least of which is his former lover Blinky, who in a burlesque number reminds him of the happier times, so to speak, but whose too-familiar pleas to stand up to boss man Bobo (her current lover) help to bring back the pain.

So who killed Timmy? The mystery at the heart of the story really isn’t the heart of the story; if anything, it’s the play’s weakest link. The heart of the story is the way Szymkowicz plays with all of the clown archetypes and stereotypes — mostly for laughs, but almost at all the right times, for pathos — but also how the NOLA Project ensemble warms to the task. This is my third viewing of a NOLA Project show, in consecutive order starting with the 2014-2015 season finale, “Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand” and continuing with the 2015-2016 season opener, “Marie Antoinette.”

And while this might sound like a backhanded compliment, so far the greatest strength of the troupe isn’t its choice in original new works (impressive) or its savvy location choices (appropriate, always). It’s in the actual acting talent onstage. In both of the previous shows, The NOLA Project troupe does an amazing job of balancing star turns by the actors in the title roles with ensemble work that spreads the love around.

It’s that willingness to share the stage that helps “Clown Bar” to really take flight, because this really is built for an ensemble cast, and the payoff of for the audience (sprinkled throughout the bar, at tables and on the sides) is massive. Alex Martinez Wallace is fine as Happy, the nominal protagonist — yet he’s happy, pardon the pun, to be more of an ensemble performer. As the only one not in clown makeup, he all but lets the rest of the clowns run the show.

That allows brilliant little moments of laughter and, of course sadness. There’s Russell as the moll Blinky (her last name gives her away), both sexy and strong in her insistence that Happy grow a pair. Having been left behind once before by Happy, she’s seen what it’s like to be treated by a “good guy,” and prefers the security of the bad Bobo.

And there’s Pomes as the menacing Twinkles, with his ambiguous loyalties, trying to decide whether to kill or back Happy, all the while chewing on every possible clown pun the script allows. And Hood, as Timmy, dressed as Pagliaccio, is a sad, addicted clown indeed, feeding off his brother in every way possible in the flashbacks. (The most telling line for Timmy goes for everyone: “On a good day, anyone can be funny. The question is, how many days can you be funny?”)

Boyd as the floozy Petunia is all bounce and verve but with a surprising heart, flirting with Happy but knowing she’ll always finish second to Blinky. She’d like to bed him, but she really loves him.

Lozano as Popo is everyone’s split-personality clown nightmare, smiling and twirling one moment, flashing a gat and a killer’s stare the next. Just like the cast, you really don’t know what to expect next from Popo. As the mob boss Bobo, Kurt Owens comes off as a late-career John Huston (think Noah Cross in “Chinatown”), smiling because he knows he holds all the cards, and possibly Happy’s fate.

The cast features regular ensemble members, but there notable exceptions, including Hood, Lovano and Owens — each of whom acts like they fit right in.

If there is a scene-stealer in “Clown Bar,” it might be Keith Claverie as Dusty, a sad trombone of a character, but blessed with a golden-throated voice that shines on every song he sings (accompanied with melancholy on piano by Christopher Grim). Claverie can switch from funny to sad clown at the drop of a wig, and his singing just adds to the entertainment. The songs — “The Clowns Have All Come Home,” “Lois Lane,” “Clown Love” and “There’s No Heaven for Clowns” — were penned by Sweet Crude bandmates Jack Craft and Skyler Stroup, and when Claverie sings from his sad sack, you know he bears the weight of the world on his padded shoulders.

(Related: See Keith Claverie’s top 5 clowns.)

I’ve seen complaints elsewhere about the pitfalls of Yeargain’s staging up in the Ramp Room; the audience sits literally in the middle of the action, which swirls about the room and forces more than a fair share of neck-craning to keep up visually. On a packed night, it’s a challenge but well worth paying. Joan Long’s lighting and scenic designs gives a you-are-there feeling, and Lindy Burns’ costumes lend a distinct identity to each performer (especially those out-sized shoes).

There will be plenty of other opportunities to watch The NOLA Project showcase the best that it has to offer in new works, fun settings and sharp performances. But as more people are learning during this run, it’s never a good idea to miss it when the circus comes to town.

“Clown Bar,” which sold out its Tuesday (Nov. 3) show as it has done for most of its run, continues through the rest of the week with performances tied to the Faux/Real Fest: Wednesday (Nov. 4, 8 p.m.), Thursday and Friday (Nov. 5-6, 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.), and on Sunday (Nov. 8, 8 p.m.). Click here for more details.

For ‘Clown Bar,’ Keith Claverie describes the ‘makeup’ of his top 5 clown characters

Full disclosure: I got my ass kicked by a gang of mean clowns on Lower Decatur Street. I had it coming; I’d asked Richard A. Pomes of The NOLA Project if I could come down and watch the extremely talented Mason Wood produce the trailer for the theatrical troupe’s latest offering, Adam Szymkowicz’s “Clown Bar,” a bizarro comedy with more than a passing reference to “Goodfellas.” The comedy opens Wednesday (Oct. 21) at the Little Gem Saloon, and for the trailer, Wood, Pomes and a whole mess of clowns filmed the trailer inside and near Molly’s at the Market. Pomes asked me if I’d like to be in it, taking a pie in the face from a clown, but instead logistics dictated I get assaulted on the sidewalk by this roving band of clowns.

Call it immersion journalism. But also call it yet another clever approach to theater from The NOLA Project, which constantly keeps audiences guessing what and where will come next. In Szymkowicz’s story, a clown turned detective must revisit his roots to investigate the murder of his brother. And that allows the audience to explore the darker nature of clowns, which long has transcended the Big Top and into popular culture. It seems like we talk about how much we fear clowns as much as we do laugh at them. (Sometimes both.)

So I asked NOLA Project regular Keith Claverie to serve up his top five favorite clowns through the years, and here’s what he came up with. (P.S. Click here for show details.)

Paul Beaumont, “He Who Gets Slapped” — “In preparation for ‘Clown Bar,’ I tried to study up on clowning and clowns, in general. Who better to research than the man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney? I caught Chaney’s silent classic ‘He Who Gets Slapped’ on TCM and was blown away. What Chaney was able to do, the emotions he was able to convey, with just a frown or — even sadder in several instances — a smile, is incredible. He is not your ordinary clown, but rather a brilliant scientist who’s life (and wife) is stolen from him so he becomes a sad clown that gets slapped to make people laugh. No spoiler alerts here, but it doesn’t end well for ‘He’ … or anyone else, really.”

Krusty the Clown, “The Simpsons” — “I’m not quite as big of a Simpsons fan as Artistic Director A.J. Allegra (or my wife/’Clown Bar’ makeup designer Leslie Claverie), but I’ve watched enough to know Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofski, aka Krusty, is a gem. He’s dirty, dark, twisted, not what you’re expecting — everything you love about ‘The Simpsons.’ He’s a clown, sure, but he’s a bit off. Similar to the patrons of our ‘Clown Bar’ (shameless plug). Plus, that Krusty laugh — it’s just the best!.

Homey D. Clown, “In Living Color” — “Sticking with the ‘clowns that area bit off’ theme, we have Homey D. Clown — an ex-con who works as a clown as part of his parole. As if the premise wasn’t funny enough, Damon Wayans crushed it as an angry Bozo-lookalike who habitually smacked children with a sock, spoke out against ‘The Man’ and uttered his now-famous catchphrase “Homey don’t play that!” Homey’s attitude and his insistence on not doing standard clown gags is what made him so hilarious. Well, that and the sound the sock made when it hit people. Dude was popular, too — there were Homey action figures, balloons and even a video game!”

Twisty, “American Horror Story: Freak Show” — With the lack of Pennywise on this list, you can probably tell the ‘scary’ clown is not my preferred clown of choice. But I make an exception for Twisty. This burly bastard was truly terrifying on ‘American Horror Story’s’ fourth season (‘Freak Show’). He stalked … everyone for seemingly no reason. And finding out ‘what is behind the mask’ was one of the greatest storylines of the season. Once the mask came off, it was pretty gross — and, unfortunately, not nearly as scary anymore. Don’t tell Twisty I said that!”

Pagliacco — “The OSC (Original Sad Clown)! Pagliaccio (real name Canio) is the tragic character of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera ‘Pagliacci.’ And, man, is he tragic. While playing a Commedia character whose lady steps out on him in a play within the opera, Canio’s lady actually steps out on him. In the most iconic scene, Canio loses it while preparing for a performance singing ‘Vesti la giubba’ (‘Put on the costume’). I had heard the tune before, but when I saw the New Orleans Opera production in 2012 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater (featuring my sister, Kathryn Matherne!), I was blown away. I’ll never forget it. Plus, it’s like the shortest opera ever … soooo, bonus!”

BONUS: “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” — “These dudes (read: aliens in the form of clowns) are just ridiculous. Not especially scary – except for the whole cotton-candy cocoon thing – but definitely silly. The rock anthem that plays as they prepare to terrorize the town is forever ingrained in my brain.”