Schmucks is a big, fat messy drama by fanciful Brit playwright Roy Smiles which invokes American comics Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce less for exaltation and more for a study of their embalmed iconography. Smiles paints these formidable comics in both heavy oil and light brush strokes. Not an easy feat even for sleights of comedy or drama.
The play’s structure is as kitschy as its East Village diner set - formica tables, mauve vinyl booths, glass bloc cutaway onto Warner Bros. noiry exteriors by set designer Bill Clarke and lighting designer Jerold Forsyth. The rainmaking was fab and Patsy and Elvis are on the pastel bulb jukebox. The Wilma should consider installing it in the lobby.
Joe Klein, budding stand-up comic, currently bombing at The Bitter End runs into that diner during the NYC blackout in 1965. He hits on the nightshift waitress Mary; she hits the generator; and, behold, Bruce and Marx show up to improve Joe’s act, and bicker about comedy and the state of their washed up careers.
From the moment he makes his vampiric entrance, Smiles’ Bruce is a full-throttle character study of fine-line depth. Erik Jensen plays Bruce as a spirit uncaged. He gives a fine performance, full of invention and heart. Not only does he have Bruce’s rhythm and attitude down, he tosses mean dialects.
Smiles’ entrée scenes are so finely paced, the dialogue sings like a set at the Blue Note, thanks to Jiri Zizka’s elastic seriocomic pacing. Enter Groucho. An old washed out legend and man. Thud. The play’s premise is once again in jeopardy, not helped by Ron Crawford mumbly Groucho. Nonetheless Smiles is smart enough not to let this disintegrate into one-liners.
Klein does his crummy act looking for suggestions from Bruce and Marx. Ian Alda’s Klein is a sketch, smartly without a hint of cynicism. Nothing is more excruciating than seeing a comic bomb, but Smiles makes this an almost lyrical scene, as the others take their turns in showing Klein what could work.
Smiles also adds layers of fantasy, but he grounds it, in this case, in melodrama. The state of the world makes Bruce a self-righteousness junkie, an emotional abuser and victim of society. Marx sings an aria about surviving on shtick, one meal away from clawing out of the ghetto.
Caitlin Clouthier, deserves extra tips for the heavy lifting for a typical ex-whore with a heart of gold past. "Schmucks" is peppered with old style ethnic and sexual gags, especially Bruce’s penchant for depicting licentious, girly homos and brutal leather boys, that gained him much popularity in the 60s.
But, other than a few heavy drama drapes, this play is a gas, complete with a must see fantasy sequence that is not to be believed or described. A hint: it’s dancey, honky, snorty and has a song medley of among others Doris Day, Gene Kelly and Ethel Merman.
Schmucks through January 4, 2009 at the The Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Sts, Philadelphia. 215.546.7824 or at the theater’s website.