[13 October 2009]
The stage revival of the Marx Brothers’ classic Animal Crackers, at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, is comically enthralling and exhausting. Buy a ticket. Hell, buy two tickets, and get your behinds in seats as soon as you can to shake off those “Great Recession” shakes you’ve been experiencing.
We needed to get that out of the way right out of the gate, as there is no point in droning on or picking apart performances, only to announce that in the midst of this “Great Recession”, director Henry Wishcamper’s adaptation of the Marx Brothers’ critical and commercial success amidst the Great Depression holds firm. Eighty years have passed since the Broadway debut of this work and another national economic crying time greets the Goodman’s production, but we can laugh until we pass out and forget our troubles in the meantime. C’mon…get happy. The cast and crew go and go until they stop on a dime and land nine-cents in change, and we get to keep a wonderful performance.
Animal Crackers made its Broadway debut in the fall of 1928, a full, physical comedy regalia for all four Marx Brothers(Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo), who sublimely ruined it for any Johnny-come-latelies to come along and step foot in awfully huge clown shoes. The brothers made the first stage version such a tour de force for an audience that had no warning that they’d soon be moving from the Gilded Age of the Roaring Twenties into financial ruin, bankruptcy and abject dissolution of the Great American Depression. An instant critical and financial success, the production caught the attention of Hollywood and etched in celluloid in 1930, taking the Marx Brothers forever away from Vaudeville and Broadway stages, permanently ensconcing Animal Crackers as a silver screen classic.
Perhaps in 1928, the play’s purpose was to point out how silly the newly minted rich were, who had nothing to do with their money but safari, marry down with gold diggers and marry up with widowed dowagers looking for the last spin, to see and be seen by gossip columnists and of course, be ripped off by the confidence men and women looking to become their new neighbors in the estates on either side. After the Fall, the nation and an entire world gripped in the fear that there may be no new opportunity, or next meal, the play as movie, along with the screwball comedies to come from The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and their counterparts, was salve on the wounds and fears of the common man. If one must be destitute and with little hope, may laughter be a balm for the (recently) disenfranchised. It is apropos that The Goodman would choose Animal Crackers as the inaugural production for the 2009-10 season.
As with the original production, the Brothers Marx reaffirmed the just-starting-out, young lovers put all of their eggs in the baskets of love and patriotic promise; the poor journalist who finds his love of a lifetime in the rich girl, breaking his back for that “one story” that will give way to the $50 a month raise and put them on “easy street” to marry and start a family. From Roscoe W. Chandler, hiding behind his millions from his former life as Abel Ishkabibble, Czechoslovakian fishmonger, searching the grounds of the mansion that belong to Mrs. Rittenhouse (Ora Jones, veteran Chicago stage actress, gives great Margaret Dumont, the long suffering dowager-as-straight-man role, embracing the slapstick, sight gags and physical demands of the role into comedic genius) looking for arm candy and financial gain, and never mind if both deliverables are a bit, uh, sullied and hard-bitten.
So the story goes that Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Joey Slotnick of Nip/Tuck, Curb Your Enthusiasm) arrives at the Rittenhouse Mansion, just back from African safari with tales of conquest and a discombobulating presence of mind and matter, he immediately spooks Ravelli & The Professor (Chico and Harpo’s original roles), who’ve arrived to swipe a rare painting and whatever else isn’t nailed down. It’s quick-moving merriment of strong song, excellent soft-shoe and glow-in-the-dark hijinks for two hours and fifteen minutes that go by practically unhitched to a flaw. Slotnick does a great Groucho imitation, knowing that there could be only One. There are great moments of adlib, particularly between Slotnick’s Spaulding and Stanley Wayne Mathis’s Chandler, a ball-of confusion and laugh-out-loud back-and-forth that left me wondering if Mathis was in on the joke, both actors taking full advantage of an opening to throw the audience and script delightfully off course.
It’s a superb cast that keeps time like a Swiss timepiece, everyone hitting difficult marks and paces with not a hair out of place and keeping the breathing light and airy, and keeping with the Marx Brothers’ tradition of choosing strong supporting players that give their all without missing a beat of the music or a bounce down the mansion stairwell. It’s also the perfect production for a world uncomfortably nestled in the “Great Recession”, needing comic relief from all our fears and worries while we pace the floor and check the calendars looking out for the next Gilded Age and the $50 a month salary increase.