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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Groucho: A Life in Revue — Actors NET at the Heritage Center Theatre

1599813_1083773011640005_3017899465980625547_oOff stage, David Newhouse looks nothing like Groucho Marx. His features are more delicate and less defined. He is fair complected and has downier hair.

In makeup, even some of the extreme makeup Julius Marks used when his vaudeville persona become Groucho, Newhouse’s transformation is astounding. Even if he didn’t project as close an image of Groucho as he does, his line delivery, and ability to get laughs, is a tribute to the spontaneously witty comedian who entertained for more than 60 years in vaudeville, theater, movies, radio, television, and concert stages. At no matter which age Newhouse portrays Groucho, he has the voice, the mannerisms, the walk, and the trick of the cigar right.

Add to Newhouse’s performance a wryly funny and winningly human turn by Susan Ferrara Barto as Chico Marx, a sophisticated and sincere homage to Margaret Dumont and other dowagers by Virginia Barrie, and a vaudeville-like string of sketches from Sarah Webster, and you have the recipe for a fun-filled and laugh-strewn good time with “Groucho: A Life in Revue,” from Morrisville’s reliable ActorsNET ensemble.

Joe Doyle directs a smart and sharp company who capture the comedy to which Groucho and his band of brothers treated us for decades, Standard bits are nostalgically welcome and hilariously performed to the point they become timelessly fresh. I’m talking about bits such as Grouch’s contract routine with Chico (‘Ey, you can’t-a fool-a me. Everybody knows-a there’s-a no such-a thing as-a Sanity Clause’), Groucho’s appearance as Captain Geoffrey Spaulding at Mrs. Rittenhouse’s (Dumont’s) fancy party (“One day I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”), and various hijinks as Doyle runs down aisles, squeezes a bicycle horn, kisses random audience members, and crooks his leg over Groucho’s outstretched arm as the silent but irrepressible Harpo Marx.

Within the comedy, “Groucho: A Life in Revue” serves as biography of the eponymous entertainer, and you not only learn about Groucho’s life and career, you see the sentiment between the brothers and the regard the boys had for their mother. The personal sequences of the play deal mostly with Groucho’s relationship with Chico, his greatest partner in celluloid glory, and one of his biggest conflicts in real life. Newhouse and Barto can elicit tears in two scenes, several sequences apart, in which the brothers each do a good, life-enhancing favor for the other and intone the same line about having a “brother like you.”

Musical sequences are as happily amusing as the comedy routines. Susan Ferrara Barto is trained as a concert pianist, and while Chico claims to be playing Victor Herbert, Barto plays Edvard Grieg with concert hall aplomb, including doing some of Chico’s barrel-house and, of course, making her right hand into a pistol and plunking single notes at the end of phrases as if she was taking aim at a shooting gallery. Doyle uses Harpo’s famous mirror scene — My sister, Lisa, and I did it for years after seeing it on “I Love Lucy” and then in its original form in “Duck Soup.” — to lead his “double,” Gloria Galante, to the harp where, dressed as Harpo, she does a stunning harp solo in keeping with Harpo’s numbers in Marx Brothers movies for MGM. (Cheryl Doyle told me she heard Galante play when she and Joe were having an anniversary dinner at a Morrisville restaurant and signed her up on the spot.) Then, there’s Newhouse finding the right antic silliness for “Hello, I Must Be Going,” “Captain Geoffrey Spaulding,” “Show Me a Rose,” and “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” in which he mock-strains his voice, just as Groucho did.

Yes, Newhouse also does a few bars of Gilbert and Sullivan (“Tit Willow” from Groucho’s favorite, “The Mikado”) as Groucho’s last wife, played by Barrie representing all four of his wives, complains he’s no fun at home and only wants to sit and listen to Gilbert and Sullivan records.

“Groucho: A Life in Revue,” written by Groucho’s son, Arthur Marx, and Robert Fisher, takes off from Groucho’s famous Carnegie Hall appearance at age 80 (the double-disk recording of which I have worn to a frazzle, as my sister and I, in what I think were well-spent youths, learned every song and routine, my brother doing a great Chico to my Groucho and Lisa’s Harpo when we got going as a family).

NealBoxMarx and Fisher’s flashback doesn’t take long to bring us to the turn of the last century with Groucho telling jokes about is father being the worst tailor in the Upper East Side, Chico being a womanizer and gambler, and him being a kid whose only logical course seemed to be show business. (In real life, Groucho, at 14, goes to the audition that gets him launched in vaudeville on his own. His mother’s interest, and the push from her brother, the great vaudevillian, Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean, come later, when Minnie Marks sees a chance for all of her sons to benefit from the theater. Newhouse and Barto do a positively, absolutely splendid rendition of the patented Gallagher and Shean style.)

Newhouse, Barto, Barrie, and company are all masters of timing. Even as he’s reminiscing Newhouse slips in one of Groucho’s asides, astutely paced in in perfect character. Barto, going into baritone for Chico’s non-accented speaking voice as Lenny Marx, has a sweet way to winning Groucho to Chico’s side even when he’s done something to threaten their careers, put all the brothers in hock (by losing poker games to studio heads he pays back with promises the Marx Brothers will perform for them) or, worse, gambling with Al Capone and others who want their winnings now!, or just spending all of his hefty salary recklessly. The relationship between Groucho and Chico is a leitmotif of “Groucho” A Life in Revue,” and Barto and Newhouse convey every ounce of sibling rivalry, resentment, partnership, and love. Newhouse is especially funny, and touching, when he tries to mimic Chico’s technique for wooing girls and gets a slap instead of a “sure thing.”

Doyle is deft at staging transitions. Newhouse turns from one stage of Groucho to another by applying or taking off makeup at a dressing room table and mirror front stage right. Doyle and Newhouse cleverly foreshadow Groucho finding his famous walk in which he learns over and flicks his cigar. Groucho’s television days are introduced by a duck coming down and offering $50 to anyone who says the word “schmuck.” The “You Bet Your Life” scene includes Barto’s Chico and a housewife with 12 children as contestants and gives “Groucho” the chance to have Groucho say the line that had him removed from live television. It was the one in which Groucho asks the contestant, played by an amused and sportsmanlike Virginia Barrie, what possessed her to have so many kids. “My husband loves me,” says the woman. “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out once in a while.” responds Groucho. “You Bet Your Life” was filmed after that response.

11115711_1083773561639950_1926673659624707010_nGroucho’s lines, routines, and delivery are their own reward. So are Harpo’s clowning, Chico’s faultless partnering, and Margaret Dumont’s characters’ hauteur. They would play in almost any production. What makes ActorsNET’s staging so special is how authentic and natural Newhouse, Barto, Doyle, and Barrie make their characters. There’s a merry spirit that infuses the theater. Everything is happy, jovial, and entertaining. You never want the show to end. Doyle and company make you want to see more. They find the pith and the amiability in Groucho’s recitation of his life. They find the zaniness of the Marx Brothers routines. They find the individual personalities of characters, personalities that made them loveable on screen and keep them interesting and sympathetic when they engage in real life.

About the only scene that doesn’t work is the one is which Groucho is confronted by his wife and given a list of what makes him a wanting husband. Newhouse and Barrie play the scene well. Barrie, in particular, finds the a direct and authentic tone for berating Groucho for his cheapness and disdain for going out to Hollywood parties. Marx and Fisher have written a scene that is too much a change of pace. In confrontations in which Grouch had to upbraid Chico, or Chico has to admit to his latest folly, there’s a humanity, a pathos that prevails and keeps the scene dramatic and in keeping with the generally high spirits of Doyle’s production. The “marriage scene” has a bitter feel. It stings, and has no comic relief, even as Groucho stares in wonder at hearing his sins and makes side comments. Barto’s guilty expression, or exuberant announcement that Chico’s incorrigibility led coincidentally to a career breakthrough, takes the edge off of other difficult, accusatory sequences. So does Newhouse’s readiness to forgive or take blame. Barrie is perfect during the wife’s castigation scene. The problem is “perfect” leaves no room for comedy, no matter how flippantly Groucho retorts and defends. Barrie and Newhouse keep the scene from being a total miss. On the contrary, they make it poignant, which is impressive and would be fine if the passage was not so out of kilter from the mood and tone of the rest of “Groucho: A Life in Revue.”

No matter. The ActorsNET show sails along jubilantly. Entertainment abounds, as does show business savvy. Newhouse, Barto, Barrie, Doyle, and Sarah Webster perform with the experienced aplomb of vaudeville, or Broadway veterans. They are deft entertainers who make the most of routines and score creditably in dramatic scenes.

David Newhouse has found the voice and timing of Groucho. The rest in academic. Newhouse knows how Groucho earned his laughs, so he in turn can be funny and treat the audience to a rousing time as Groucho’s surrogate.

Newhouse doesn’t imitate. He is an actor playing a role and doing it adroitly. The essence of Groucho is part of everything he does, including when Groucho is telling a story or communing with a character in a non-performance setting.

Like Groucho, Newhouse knows how to be an emcee. Best of all, he also knows how to get the biggest yock from Groucho’s material. “Yocks” were the aim for comics who acted more than they told standard jokes. They measured their success on the frequency and volume of laughter. They could analyze jokes surgically and know exactly where an emphasis should be. Newhouse plays a man who frequently adlibbed and augmented the scripts George S, Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and he conveys Groucho’s spontaneity and improvisational skill.

Susan Ferrara Barto is equally adept as Chico. Unmistakably feminine in real life, Barto suppresses her womanhood entirely to be not only a natural and authentic Chico but convincing in Chico’s way with the girls, the basis for his name.

Costumer Cheryl Doyle dresses Chico in a plain white shirt, buttoned opened at the top, gray trousers, and a bright, patterned coat. This puts Barto in character as Groucho’s primary comic foil and as the libidinous man about town who is always on the lookout for a lady or a crap game. In fact, Doyle show Barto’s Chico shooting craps while Groucho is waiting for Chico to answer his on-stage cue. (“Don’t allow me to spoil your gambling with this show the audience has paid good money to see.”)

Barto is a clever comedian. She captures Chico’s offhand way of sliding into routines. She can also be touching, instead of off-putting, when Chico is in serious trouble for the 200th time, and Groucho has to bail him out of it.

Scenes between Barto and Newhouse play like clockwork. Each obviously enjoys the opportunity to play a Marx brother, and each is solid in going through the well-known routines, Newhouse always being shrewd and anxious, Barto serene, nonchalant, and delightfully uncomprehending.

Just as Newhouse fits neatly into the role of Groucho as “You Bet Your Life’s” host, Barto is great at playing the real Chico as a contestant on the show, measuring when to be in character and answering Groucho as if they on a Broadway stage and when to be himself, play the game, and be a partner to Barrie as his co-contestant. The category is horse racing, so Chico is in his element and poised to win “You Bet Your Life’s” $1,000 prize, a lot of money in the 1950s.

Then there’s the piano playing. Barto plays better than Chico but finds his signature style and makes her musical interlude as entertaining as it is impressive.

Virginia Barrie is one of the most versatile actresses in the area. She can play anything from a common woman on a farm to a duchess and make you believe her character every minute.

Watching Margaret Dumont over all the decades I have, you notice two things. The woman could act. She was not just a type or a figure Groucho hired for her height or patrician appearance. And she has a sense of humor. Dumont got the joke and played opposite Groucho in kind.

Virginia Barrie, a fine actress on her own, does Dumont the favor of showing her comic ability, her awareness of Groucho’s jokes, and the posture and expression that makes her such a good foil as the rich dowager Groucho tries to con for her money.

Barrie is the unflappable Mrs. Rittenhouse from “Animal Crackers” and impressionable invalid from “The Day at the Races,” Mrs, Upjohn. She finds just the right note to be the object of Groucho’s derision and his willing ally in presenting comedy. All of Margaret Dumont’s uncompromised dignity is there on the ActorsNET stage to behold.

Barrie also displays humor as the woman who thrills at the way Groucho makes fun of her and her prolific childbearing in the “You Bet Your Life” sequence. She even gives urgency to the scene in which she plays Groucho’s complaining, departing wife. Marx and Fisher might have made a mistake in going for drama by including that scene. Barrie and Newhouse make it play on its own, as if it was an extra bit thrown in for contrast.

Sarah Webster is wonderful in playing a variety of characters ranging from a floozy chorine who appears with Groucho in vaudeville to two excellently conceived and executed passages as reporters interviewing Groucho at two phases on his life. The irony is the two reporters are mother and daughter, and the younger asks Groucho about seducing her mother while she was in the process of doing her job as a journalist.

Webster is a fine dancer and entertainer, and she makes her book scenes work.

Joe Doyle never has to be asked twice to give a performance of limitless size and comedy. He brings his exuberance to Harpo, being a great partner in routines and keeping the audience on its toes as the wanders the aisle kissing people, women and mne, on the cheek.

James Cordingley and Jerry Smith step in to play a variety of characters from Zeppo or Gummo Marx to a studio head or someone Groucho or Chico is trying to bamboozle. In all instances these actors fit in with an enhance the show.

Joe Doyla and James Cordingley’s set is basic and allows for transitions to a lot of locations and theater stages. Cheryl puts the Marx Brothers in their familiar costumes while finding appropriate gowns for Barrie’s grandes dames and Webster’s singing or journalistic ingénues. David H. Bohn leads a fine quartet to go into Groucho’s riffs and who accompany his songs with comic spirit. Percussionist James Jarvie is especially quick, and clever, with rimshots to punctuate Groucho’s vaudeville punch lines.

“Groucho: A Life in Revue” runs through Sunday, May 3 at ActorsNET’s home at the Heritage Center Theatre, 635 N. Delmorr Avenue, in Morrisville, Pa. (the last block before the Delaware River takes you to Trenton). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 with available discounts and can be obtained by calling 215-295-3694 or by visiting www.actorsnetbucks.org.

P.S. For its 20th anniversary, ActorsNET is conducting a poll that allows its fans to vote for revivals of plays they enjoyed in previous seasons. I am plumping for “Animal Crackers.”  Help me out, and vote for “Animal Crackers” if you complete a ballot.  Thanks.

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