ANIMAL CRACKERS is an escape from normalcy, by taking a quick turn into absurdity. The third and final stage show for The Marx Brothers when it premiered, this show is an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of show: it’s a romance, a musical, a screwball comedy, with a small dash of story and a large dash of comedic anarchy. It’s also playing at The Cygnet Theatre through August 13th.
The plot seems simple enough: Mrs. Rittenhouse (the marvelous Melinda Glib) is throwing a house party to honor famed African explorer Captain Spaulding (Josh Odsess-Rubin), and to unveil a famous painting. Her debutante daughter Arabella (Lauren King Thompson) falls for a gossip reporter Wally Winston (Chaz Feuerstine) while helping him gather something worthy of reporting. Other guests include a Spaudling’s assistant Jamison, a millionaire, two scheming sisters, a young artist and his fiancé, an Italian musician, and a silent but silly professor. The famous painting goes missing, there are two fakes floating for extra confusion, and hijinks ensue.
The difficulty comes in balancing the lunacy and the sense of spontaneity that the Marx Brothers were known for with the iconic style of both verbal and physical humor. There is an additional challenge for the actors portraying the Marx Brothers parts; they are actors portraying Marx brothers as they play other characters.
Josh Odsess-Rubin returns to the Cygnet stage as Groucho Marx (the leader of this merry band), who is playing his character of Captain Spaulding. He has a solid command of Groucho’s style, and is very funny selling ridiculousness like “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know”. Odsess-Rubin is best when he has a chance to improvise and play with the audience, even throwing in a mention to “Bad Jews” his last Cygnet show, where he was fantastic.
Spencer Rowe is more subtle (is that a word to be applied to the Marx Brothers?) with his serious delivery of absurd line in an Italian accent. Scenes with Groucho as they negotiate his music rates, and a Chico-Harpo scene about a flashlight are particular standouts. Bryan Banville as Zeppo gets to play a bit more of the straight man role in this quartet, but he is both funny there and charming in his other role as the romantic but self-doubting painter John Parker. Samantha Wynn Greenstone is very expressive as the silent, but silly, physical comic Zeppo and captures the duality of the innocence that the character had while also being a skirt chaser. “Four of the Three Musketeers” is a wonderful number showcasing the brothers, and one of the only times you get to see them really working together as a unit.
The supporting cast holds their own against this madcap mischief, often with very quick costume changes. Lauren Thompson King and Amy Perkins do double duty as both ingénues and some ruthless women set on ruining the party. Melinda Glib as Mrs. Rittenhouse and Russell Garrett as a Butler and millionaire, both add comic exuberance. Chaz Feuerstine is covers characters from reporter, to art lover, to cop with comedic ease.
This is a musical comedy after all, so the musical numbers are not to be overlooked.
“Three Little Words” is a fun and flirty dance number between Thompson’s Arabella and Feuerstine’s reporter Winston.
“Why am I so Romantic?” is a sweet duet featuring Amy Perkins as the wholesome Mary and Banville as John Parker, an aspiring artist.
The show has many elements that work, but ultimately it feels like it never quite got it all together. The pacing is tricky, as there are a lot of twists and turns in between what are the main plot points. Short gags and Marx brother’s non sequitur routines pop in and out to show, and with their lack of relevance to the scene proceeding or following, can make this show feel a bit messy.
The set designed by Sean Fanning is a gorgeous ornate foyer that has heavy deco accents. In fact this great hall is large enough for the fantastic band led by Terry O’Donnell to sit on the stage with the actors. It is always nice to have a chance to see the musicians making the music.
The Marx Brothers may have be considered one of the most celebrated comedic teams in the history of entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that this show is everyone’s cup of tea. Some people in the audience complained that is was a bit hard to follow, others that it was too long, but ultimately it comes down to timing and style.
In comedy, timing can be everything and in this show doesn’t feel quite like it has fully gelled yet into a cohesive whole. Part of that may be structure, with the routines popping up between scenes, but there are still hills and valleys of the show that may be rectified by getting a consistent pace.
This show has a very distinct style, one that most people will know if they respond to or not. If the Marx Brothers are a type of comedy that you like, then this is the show for you.
If it’s not your cup of tea then I think it can be best summed up by something Percy Hammond, the late theatre critic of the Chicago Times, once wrote after seeing the Marx Brothers’ Vaudeville act: “The Marx Brothers and their various relatives ran around the stage for almost an hour, yesterday afternoon. Why, I’ll never understand.”
ANIMAL CRACKERS is playing at the Cygnet Theater through August 13th. For tickets and show times go to www.cygnettheatre.com