By George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Henry Wishcamper
Through Oct. 13 at Center Stage
George Kaufman co-wrote several stage-comedy classics-most notably The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It with You-but Animal Crackers is not one of them. This 1928 musical comedy, co-authored by Morrie Ryskind, with songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, is a ramshackle affair. The romantic-comedy plot makes little sense and commands less interest, even when accessorized by some so-so songs, farcical subplots, and a few priceless puns. The one and only reason the play is remembered today is that it was once a vehicle for an up-and-coming vaudeville act called the Four Marx Brothers and became their third-straight hit on Broadway-and later their second movie.
So one has to wonder why Center Stage picked the show to kick off its 2013-2014 season. The script isn't strong enough to stand on its own, and the Marx Brothers, being dead, aren't available to perform in it. If you cast actors with no resemblance to Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, there's no point in choosing this play over much-superior alternatives. If you do cast actors with a deliberate resemblance to the four brothers, you end up with the lowest of the theatrical arts: impersonation. Director BJ Jones has adopted the latter strategy, employing a fairly faithful adaptation by Henry Wishcamper. While Jonathan Brody and Bruce Nelson are terrific as Chico and Groucho, respectively, we never forget that we're watching impersonations. The result is a pleasant evening full of many chuckles but very few out-loud laughs.
From the moment Nelson crawls out of an impossibly small suitcase in the opening scene, it's clear that the beloved Baltimore actor is playing Groucho Marx more than Captain Spaulding, his character's ostensible name. Nelson is wearing a tan pith helmet but he gives little indication that he's an African explorer making his triumphant return to America. On the other hand, he does have the cigar, tuxedo tails, stooped lope, and blacked-on eyebrows and mustache that were Groucho's vaudeville trademarks. Nelson also has the flamboyant self-regard, hustler's charm, and gadfly's iconoclasm that were all part of Groucho's arsenal. It's an inspired imitation but an imitation nonetheless.
Spaulding is being feted by Mrs. Rittenhouse (Catherine Smitko) at her Long Island mansion in an effort to one-up her competitors in the high-society scene. Two of those competitors, Grace Carpenter (Erin Kommor) and Mrs. Whitehead (Dina DiCostanzo), hope to sabotage the evening by stealing the famous French painting being unveiled after dinner. The hostess' daughter, Arabella (DiCostanzo again), is looking for a suitor and finds one in Wally Winston (John Scherer), a society reporter, while another journalist named Mary (Kommor again) has snuck in her painter boyfriend, John (Sean Montgomery), in hopes of winning a commission from the wealthy Texan, Roscoe Chandler (Sean Blake).
None of these plot points really matter much once Brody and Brad Aldous show up in the Chico and Harpo roles as Ravelli and the Professor, two party-crashers looking for a swindle. Aldous does an adequate job, but he approaches Harpo's physical slapstick more like a muscular football player than Harpo's loose-limbed jitterbugger. And Aldous' attempt to play the harp is a complete failure. By contrast, Brody has Chico down cold, from the comic piano-playing to the surrealist banter, delivered with a tough-guy attitude and an exaggerated Italian accent.
Smitko proves a similarly gifted impersonator in the Margaret Dumont role of Mrs. Rittenhouse; the matronly hostess keeps flirting with Spaulding no matter how much he mocks her, and their amorous wrestling on the couch is a hilarious series of pratfalls as Smitko and Nelson tumble across, upon, and off the white divan. Nelson is at his best here as he continues to fire off wonderfully terrible puns even as his rubbery limbs betray his every attempt to navigate the sofa. If that's the show's best scene, the second-best is the tap-dancing duet by DiCostanzo and Scherer. If there's one thing that's always more effective in live theater than in the movies, it's a tap-dancing duet.
You might think that the perfect audience for Center Stage's Animal Crackers would be Marx Brothers fans. But it turns out that the opposite is true. The better you know the classic black-and-white movies by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, the more likely you are to mentally compare the originals to the impersonators, and the less likely you are to be surprised by the memorable punch lines and slapstick bits. The less you know the old films, the more likely you are to approach this show with a clean slate and be delighted by jokes and routines you've never before encountered. And, in fact, on opening night, the biggest laughs came from the youngest members of the audience.