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Theatre in Review: Three Wise Guys (The Actors Company Theatre/Theatre Row)

Joel Jones, Jeffrey C. Hawkins, Karl Kenzler, Ron McClary. Photo: Marielle Solan.

In its revivals of The Late Christopher Bean and Three Men on a Horse, the people running TACT have always displayed a certain fondness for 1930s screwball comedy. Now they have created one of their own: Scott Alan Evans, the company's executive artistic director, and Jeffrey Couchman, a dramatist and film scholar, have stitched together two Damon Runyon stories to create Three Wise Guys. As theatrical operations go, the seams show, rather badly, and the patient isn't showing too many signs of life.

Three Wise Guys is a cockeyed retelling of the Nativity story -- it unfolds on Christmas Eve 1932 -- with a teeming cast of typical Runyon guys and dolls. The wise guys of the title are all in one jam or another. Blondy Swanson is a bootlegger whose profits have run dry: The Depression has wrecked the business and Prohibition is on the way out; even worse, he has lost the love of his life, a certain Miss Clarabelle Cobb, because he declined to go straight. If Blondy is unlucky in love, The Dutchman is a loser at the track: He's in for a cool two grand to a rough character named Little Gringo: He is so desperate for cash that he has hit the streets of New York dressed as Santa Claus, carrying a sandwich board for a tailor named Moe Lewinsky. The happy-go-lucky Dancing Dan has recklessly gotten himself involved with Muriel, a Moonbeam girl at the Half Moon Club; trouble is, Heine Schmitz, a gangster, considers her his personal property.

Feeling the collective heat, the trio decides to take it on the lam. In need of a car, they cross paths with Myrton, an English butler, and end up at a society party in Great Neck, hired to play Santa and his elves for a rowdy gang of unfortunate youths. Their problems -- including a gun-toting Heine -- follow them there, and they barely escape, heading next to Pennsylvania in search of some buried loot about which The Dutchman has personal knowledge. On arrival, further trouble awaits in the form of a young lady who is consigned to a barn and about to go into labor.

Seemingly conceived to recall the Paramount comedies of the era -- the kind of movie that might have had George Raft, Edward Arnold, and Mary Boland in the cast -- Three Wise Guys has the look and feel of a synthetic: It apes the manner of a classic screwball farce without delivering the laughs. When The Dutchman, speaking in that peculiar patois known as Runyonese, says, "In fact, I am a patriot. One year I even paid an income tax," it earns a mild giggle at best. Other bits carry a faint hint of desperation. Trying to explain to Bitsy, the Great Neck hostess, how her butler hired Dancing Dan to play Santa, he says, "He must have heard it through the buttle network." This is about as amusing as the bartender who sings "Hava Nagila" while handing out Christmas-themed cocktails. The story is also poorly constructed, requiring the action to stop repeatedly for flashbacks -- making use of projections and shadow puppets -- to fill us in on various complicated backstories.

This is nothing against the cast, all of whom, under Evans' direction, deliver neatly stylized characterizations without going over the top. Karl Kenzler amuses as Blondy, weeping his way through his annual reading of Miss Clarabelle's kiss-off letter. Joel Jones is equally adept as The Dutchman, especially when explaining that he doesn't mind "the new type of safe," even though it means extra work when knocking off a factory or bank. As Dancing Dan, Jeffrey C. Hawkins has a fine kick-up-your-heels entrance and a breezy attitude throughout. Victoria Mack delivers two very distinct ladies of the chorus, and there are also solid turns from John Plumpis as the homicidal Heine, Dana Smith-Croll as the fearsome Bitsy, and Ron McClary as Myrton, the butler, who has "quite an infallible" system for playing the ponies.

The design is a tall order for this company, and Jason Ardizzone-West's set, a collage of New York skyscrapers that opens up like an Advent calendar, doesn't mesh terribly well with Dan Scully's projections of the city. Layering imagery on top of the painted set produces muddy results. (The use of hanging laundry as a projection surface works rather better.) Mary Louise Geiger's lighting often ameliorates this problem by carving the actor out of the set. David Toser's costumes have plenty of period fizz, especially Bitsy's red velvet evening gown and Muriel's all-white Moonbeam-girl outfit, which could have come out of any Ruby Keeler film. (Robert-Charles Vallance has supplied some nifty period wigs.) Bart Fasbender's sound design provides fine reinforcement for the recorded jazz combo playing Joseph Trapanese's original music.

As it wanders here, then there, Three Wise Guys occasionally amuses, as when a cynical barman compares Santa Claus to a second-story man, or when The Dutchman, at the wheel and in his cups, accepts another cup of whiskey, adding, "I will have just one more. I am driving, after all." But it is a sadly aimless thing, loaded with underpowered gags and lacking in urgency, even when the threat of gunplay is introduced. In concocting this serving of Christmas cheer, somebody left the rum out of the eggnog. -- David Barbour


(12 March 2018)

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