The 1928 Marx Brothers' Broadway musical, lavishly and lovingly reassembled by Arena Stage for a spring run that began Saturday night, is called "Animal Crackers." But you might just as well call it bonkers!
It's not only the four brothers--or rather the four look- and do-alikes Arena has miraculously conjured up for the occasion--who are out of their minds with mischief and madness. It's the whole show. Check your rationality at the door. Disorder is the order of the evening, and lowbrow humor is its high calling.
To the strident trumpeting of elephants, Capt. Jeffrey T. Spalding (which is to say, Groucho, which is actually to say the intrepid Stephen Mellor) makes his entrance in a fur-draped sedan chair, borne by four beauties in harem scanties. He promptly proceeds to croak what became Groucho's lifelong signature tune, "Hooray for Captain Spalding," then sets about dismantling the English language and the pretensions of a houseful of snooty Long Islanders.
The mute Professor (Harpo's role, here filled with innocent anarchy by Charles Janasz) filches the underwear off a society matron, leaving her dress intact, pulls what amounts to the contents of a complete garage sale from his pockets and dances a sweet pas de deux with the gilded figurine on his harp.
Emanuel Ravelli (Chico, nimbly resuscitated by Donald Corren) coaxes runaway nonsense out of a baby grand, helps pitch and parry the puns, and goes a few rounds in the ring with his unflappable hostess. Granted, Horatio Jamison (Zeppo by way of J. Fred Shiffman) doesn't have that much to do. Zeppo never did. Still, he's right there for the finale, decked out in fancy French finery, singing with his brothers, "We're four of the three Musketeers."
So far, that's more or less what you'd expect. Any show or movie rash enough to let the Marx Brothers in ended up bending itself around their particularly explosive brand of clowning. Plot? Forget it. A pretext sufficed, and in this case George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind relied on that old standby--the fashionable weekend party, thrown by the imperious Mrs. Rittenhouse (Peggy Hewett, paying a grand tribute to Margaret Dumont) and populated by stuff pots, eccentrics and the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus. This one also has something to do with a famous statue that's to be unveiled, and a couple of forgeries that turn up in its place. But if you think that matters, you probably believe that eating crusts of bread makes for curly hair.
What there is of a plot simply parts time and again, like the Red Sea, to make way for the brothers' routines--the flights of verbal badgering, a cockamamie game of bridge, slapstick with a dead fish or a bouncing check, and those ersatz songs of courtship, which always brought out the giddy demon in Groucho. "Show me a rose," he croons to his blissful hostess, "and I'll show you a girl named Sam." (No, you figure it out.)
What is more surprising about this show, which time had scattered to the four winds, until Arena decided to gather up all the pieces and put it back together again, is that the nuttiness is like a contagion. It spills over into areas that usually are off-limits. Take, for example, the love interest--a struggling sculptor (Bob Westenberg) and the society photographer from The Morning Traffic (Deborah Jean Templin). Midway through the first act, "Animal Crackers" settles down briefly to allow them to sing one of the ballads in Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby's chipper score. It asks "Why Am I So Romantic?" and just as the two are getting cozy, a gilded cage rises from the stage. Clustered within are five chorus girls, costumed as sun-bright canaries. No sooner have they begun to dance and flutter around the lovers than they are joined by five men in canary feathers, chirping and peeping in a slightly lower register. Nobody lets on that anything is unusual. In fact, the lovers pass out a little birdseed before retreating into the cage themselves for the fade-out embrace.
The number is charming. It's inventive. And, in its quiet way, it's just as demented as the rest of the show. In act two, the swooning lovers return to sing "Watching the Clouds Roll By." You've guessed it. Choreographer Baayork Lee brings back the dancers, this time costumed as puffs of cumulus clouds, for a routine that could have tumbled out of Busby Berkeley's kaleidoscope.
The insanity is all-pervasive. Even the "Long Island Low Down," a relatively straight dance number (every self-respecting 1920s musical attempted to fan the fires of a new dance rage) is notable for the frenetic jumps it requires of its devotees, as if the marbled Deco floor were really a trampoline. Which leads us to the major problem of this revival, although you'd be nuts if you let the hitches keep you away. There is simply too much of "Animal Crackers." In the interests of historical accuracy, director Douglas Wager has collated at least three different versions of the script, and the holes in the long-lost Kalmer/Ruby score have been plugged with numbers from the team's other shows, plus a few brand-new ones by Eric Stern. Having assembled all this wondrous material, however, Arena has yet to prune it down to manageable size.
Good as Mellor's Groucho is--and the actor is eyebrow-arching-perfect--he is not entirely immune to logorrhea. The four brothers are required to pile the comic business so high that the tower eventually begins to totter. Hanky-panky with a bridge table on the heels of hanky-panky with a folding table may just be one table, or one hanky, too many.
"Animal Crackers" is equally prodigal with its lovers. There's a second pair tripping up and down the wide staircase, and while Eric Weitz, as a scoop-happy gossip columnist, and Karen Jablons, as Mrs. Rittenhouse's daughter ("You've been a debutante for two months and you're still not engaged"), make a peppy couple in song and tap dance, they also contribute to the overlapping. Scissors are definitely needed, but what do you cut? Halo Wines and Christina Moore, borrowing their dispositions from the Dragon Lady and their accents from Katharine Hepburn to make a screamingly funny pair of jealous socialites? Richard Bauer's unctuously efficient butler? The bathing beauties cooing and kicking by the pool? The brothers' first-act quartet? Or their second-act spot?
These are decisions for a show-biz Solomon and, however they go, they're bound to hurt. Still, "Animal Crackers" will have to suffer some small losses in order to reap the final profit. The dither is often high and mighty, but too many kooks, as Spalding himself might say, can spoil the broth.
ANIMAL CRACKERS. By George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Music and lyrics by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. Directed by Douglas Wager; choregraphy by Baayork Lee; musical direction, Robert Fisher; orchestrations, Russell Warner; additional music, Eric Stern; sets, Zack Brown; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, William Mintzer. With Stephen Mellor, Charles Janasz, J. Fred Shiffman, Donald Corren, Karen Jablons, Eric Weitz, Bob Westenberg, Deborah Jean Templin, Halo Wines, Christina Moore, Peggy Hewett, Mark Hammer, Richard Bauer. At Arena Stage.