humor

Jesters of the Jazz Age

The Marx Brothers—four actual brothers, best known for their timely political commentary, sophisticated puns and physicalized comedy—left no stone unturned. They poked fun at everyone and everything: aristocrats, hobos, history, and especially relationships between men and women. I’ll Say She Is, now at the Connelly Theater, written by Will B. Johnstone, went to Broadway in 1924 and put the Marx Brothers on the map. Their rise was mercurial, and they made many movies that spread their popularity even wider.

But I’ll Say She Is, unlike their other stage shows, never became a film. It centers on a rich heiress named Beauty, played by the lovely Melody Jane, whose problem—“Society Woman Craves Excitement”—headlines the newspapers. The Marx Brothers, actors looking for work, are sent by their casting agent to woo her, and presumably get money from her. After all, her problem seems to be of great local concern. Fabulously rich, she lives with her also very wealthy aunt, Ruby, played by Kathy Biehl, who lends the role the right amount of stentorian authority. When the Brothers arrive at Ruby and Beauty’s door, the butler, played comically by C.L. Weatherstone, asks: “Gentlemen, did you come by appointment?” to which Chico responds, “No, we came by subway.”

The literal use of language is what made the Marx Brothers so brilliant. When Chico asks Harpo to cut the cards, he takes out an ax and chops them up. However, their comedy doesn’t completely rely on fast-paced antics. Instead, there are many quieter, more theatrical moments, as well as moments that showcase the array of talent the Marx Brothers had. Harpo was a gifted harpist, and Chico learned to play the piano with a special one-handed technique, and the actors successfully capture these talents.

When actors play famous personae, we want to see exactness, but what we really should be looking for is likeness. The four actors who play the Marx Brothers do a fantastic job of capturing the broader aspects of each of the brothers’ personas. And personas they were. Matt Roper captures Chico’s tight-lipped, one-sided grin, casts the sideways glances that made Chico seem both wary and earnest. Seth Shelden plays Harpo’s muteness with energy. Harpo was a pickpocket of sorts, and to recreate this theatrically takes a certain kind of magician’s ability. In one scene, Ruby suspects that he has stolen some cutlery, but she then backs off her claim. At the same time, several forks, spoons and knives fall out of Harpo’s sleeve. Shelden masters the great physical control needed to play Harpo’s mute but mischievous character.

Groucho was surprisingly successful in romance. The older women adored him for his quasi-romantic nature, and sharp humor. During a scene while courting Ruby, she calls, “Ah! My dear! At last I’ve found you.”

Groucho: “Yes, my darling, here I am.”
Ruby: “I was referring to my niece.”
Groucho: “Well, I’ll have you on your niece in no time.”

However, his exaggerated black eyebrows, painted thickly above his own, the long waistcoat, and cigar dangling from the side of his mouth make him also the most comical-looking. Noah Diamond does a wonderful job of getting Groucho’s famous walk just right with the back bent forward, and knees in a deep plié that often made Groucho look like he was gliding across the room.

And last but not least, Matt Walters plays Zeppo with all the leading-man charm reminiscent of those classic film stars Cary Grant and Clark Gable. Beauty falls in love with him at the end of the play and realizes that “there is no greater thrill than the thrill of love.”

Diamond lovingly restored the lost script by working with Johnstone’s rehearsal notes to adapt the play to the Connelly Theater, a historic venue dating back to the mid-1800s. Director Amanda Sisk, choreographer Shea Sullivan, and musical director Sabrina Chap do a marvelous job of capturing the voluptuousness of a Broadway revue during the age of vaudeville. The play, produced by Trav S.D., includes an array of 10 chorus dancers who are a triple threat: they dance, sing, and act. And of course, they all tap-dance. In their sparkly art deco dresses they bring an additional vibrancy to the stage that makes the play all the more fun in its reminiscence of a vaudeville spectacle.

I’ll Say She Is runs through July 3 at the Connelly Theater (220 E. 4th St., between Avenues A and B). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 7 p.m. on Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35 ($25 for students and seniors), available at 212-352-3101 or www.illsaysheis.com.

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Writer Madness

The Golden Smile by Yaakov Bressler and directed by Joey Stamp is an absurd, hilarious and energetic play that is sure to break the winter funk. The play opens with a group of characters, patients to be more exact, in a mental institution. The patients try to create a play that will save their privileges in the recreational room. Some patients have an ulterior motive to win the heart of their beloved Claude–who is never seen but heard about in songs. Theatergoers enter the patients’ world, which is filled with twists and turns, and witness what the patients will do to write their play.

The cast is fun and filled with energy. The audience gets to see a glimpse of the characters’ mental conditions and personalities. However, their personalities can be more diverse and more nuanced as the play provides the space for this type of character exploration. One actor that stands out is Sofiya Cheyenne (Group Leader). Cheyenne is captivating and delivers a strong and engaging performance. Cheyenne really puts a punch to the witty and sarcastic lines. The entire cast, Andy McCain (Writer), Jody Doo (Sarcastic Actor), Flynn Harne (The Messenger), Robert DiDomenico (Loathing Actor) and Isaac Boorstin (Angry Actor) are talented and versed in both acting and musical theater.

The songs are playful, graphic and wacky. Composer and Musical Director Zach Stamp matches the music with these wonky characters. The music moves along with the tone and nature of the play. Costume and Prop Managers Rivkah Spolin, Shelly Ben-Yshay and Carrie Pieper designed the set and costumes accordingly. The set and costumes coordinate with the vibrant personalities on stage. They do an excellent job alongside Stamp’s direction. The creative team piece this insane world together for audiences to be hooked for a whole hour!

There are two plots in this play: one of the actual play and the other of the characters’ creative play. The big plot flows and the audience clearly understands the wants of each character. They all collectively want to write this play but they have different ideas and direction on how to go about it. How they figure it out is the fun part for the audience. Eventually, the group comes to an agreement and they have a play. Their play’s plot gets a little sloppy when they begin their quest for the Golden Smile. Then again, they are mental patients so their level of coherence may be off. Bressler has to be very clear with his intention at this point. The patients show strength, courage and determination, and represent much of who they are as a group.

In the end, they create a tender story about preservation and happiness, which by the same token is ironic considering their circumstances. They find their “golden smile” as many writers or artists in general find theirs. Bressler seems to be drawing connections to how insane the writing process is for writers and what better way to show this than to have mental patients trying to write a play. It is a wonderful premise and one that many writers would agree with. This is Bressler’s first play–he has a knack for humor and sharp dialogue. Audiences will be excited to see how his work evolves.

The Golden Smile serves to be an exhilarating night at the theater. Watch it for the humor, energy, witty lines and music. It is sure to get everyone walking out with a smile and maybe even a golden one.

The Golden Smile is part of the Frigid Festival, which is showing over 150 performances in two theaters and over the span of three weeks. The festival is founded on the idea of providing theater artists the opportunity to produce their own work.

The Golden Smile runs until March 5 at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4 St. between 2 and 3 Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets are $15. To purchase tickets, call (212) 777-6088 or horsetrade.info.

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