Groucho: A Life in Revue (2001)

I knew what a Groucho Marx impression was before I knew who Groucho Marx was. Growing up, I could buy glasses-with-mustaches at any novelty shop and the kids in my neighborhood would twiddle imaginary cigars in imitation of Bugs Bunny and other culturally adept cartoon characters. Like Elvis and Hitler, Groucho perfected a deceptively simple persona whose shorthand is easy to ape. So everyone did. The world needs another Groucho impression like Niagara Falls needs another wax museum — the territory’s been staked, settled, and overpopulated for ages.

Apparently the makers of Groucho: A Life in Revue thought there was room for one more. The show began as an off-Broadway play in 1986 and has been performed off and on since, to modest success. A taped PBS performance from 2001 released on DVD 29 March, it is essentially a one-man show. Frank Ferrante plays Groucho, delivering monologues from prominent points in his life. There are two other actors, Roy Abramsohn as brother Leonard/Chico (he also plays Harpo) provides a context to Groucho’s fussiness and is the only relationship explored in depth. Marguerite Lowell as “The Girls” covers a variety of roles, including Margaret Dumont and Groucho’s wives.

The dramatization separates Groucho’s life into four sections in two acts: boyhood and vaudeville, great success on stage, movies and television work, and old age. Along the way, well known Groucho and Marx Brothers bits are duly reenacted: “Hooray For Captain Spaulding,” “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady,” You Bet Your Life, “I don’t care to belong to a club…” The show advertises the chance to relive these moments (and see vaudeville skits that few people alive have ever seen), but it’s a mixed bag: You Bet Your Life captures the series’ improvisational zing, but Marx Brothers moments like “Captain Spaulding” have a hard time capturing their anarchic energy on a small stage with a cast of three.

The script too, written by Arthur Marx and Robert Fisher, is marred by the cursory contemplation and sentimental gloss one might expect from somebody writing a play about his father (that isn’t being written as an act of revenge). The play doesn’t consider what drove Groucho to and through his famous moments, but instead details his ordinariness. The script seems to aspire to a deeper character study, in its flirtation with the man’s (possible) faults, but seem unwilling to acknowledge that he was anything but a good-hearted man. In a typical “serious” scene, Groucho acknowledges that he was a verbally abusive husband only to conclude, “Insulting you was just my way of loving you.” And all is forgiven.

Repeating tired trademark Groucho mannerisms, Ferrante’s performance is less a comment on Groucho’s temperament as an entertainer, than an instance of the sort of self-indulgence that lurks behind too many one-person shows. Ferrante plays the rare moments when Groucho drops his guard as generically “earnest.” At its worst, his performance is grating, like being stuck in a room with a precocious child that won’t calm down.

In the end, a life in revue is not a life at all. Rather than make the show a greatest hits extravaganza, the producers add a layer of biographical schmaltz to convey schmerz, which sinks any overriding whimsy and fun it may offer. The original brilliance of Groucho lay in his cynicism and anarchy and the gleeful mocking of such theatrical shams.

As Groucho once said, “I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”