Everyone knows the Groucho Marx of You Bet Your Life
, his hilarious hit show from the 1950s. But the funnyman at the heart of Next Act Theatre’s Groucho: A Life in Review
might be more appropriate for an episode of another famous TV show: This Is Your Life
There’s no Ralph Edwards here to bring on surprise guests from Groucho’s past. But there is a good dose of sentiment and, of course, nostalgia in the two-hour play. Here, Groucho talks us through his life on his own. Along the way, we are treated to musical numbers, famous routines from the Marx Brothers’ movies, and, of course, we make the acquaintance of his brothers, Chico and Harpo.
A Life in Review was written by Groucho’s son, Arthur Marx (with the help of Robert Fisher), who has devoted his writing career to paying tribute to his wise-cracking dad. When it premiered in New York in 1986, it was a potent vehicle for Groucho imitator Frank Ferrante. And here, the show belongs to Norman Moses, who many will remember from other Milwaukee shows in which he donned a cigar and a broad, painted mustache.
Arthur’s reminiscences stretch from the very early days of the brothers, growing up in tough times on the Lower East Side, through the golden movie years, and all the way to Groucho’s 1972 appearance at Carnegie Hall (he was 81). Portraying Marx over 65 years of his life places extra demands on Moses, but he is as charming and convincing as the Groucho of the Rufus T. Firefly years, as he is in playing Groucho in the more melancholy days just before his death.
And Moses gets a chance to do more than wiggle his cigar and waggle his eyebrows. The show isn’t all about zany antics and good times. The playwright makes it a point to describe the darker side of the show biz life—like Groucho’s insomnia, financial worries, and failed marriages; and Chico’s gambling problems. In a few scenes, Moses has a chance to do some serious heartstring pulling, and he does it with lovely understatement.
David Cescarini shines as Chico, pulling off some of the famous routines with crack timing. Chris Klopatek gives Harpo his familiar rubber-limbed zaniness, including a fantasy sequence with a “human (female) harp.” Alexandra Bonesho deserves praise just for wearing that harp costume, but she also handles female roles from giggly young fans to the snooty Mrs. Dumont. Chase Stoeger plays a mean ukulele, in addition to several small roles. And Jack Forbes Wilson holds down the piano parts with the usual technique and charm.
Groucho: A Life in Revue will give you a few satisfying if broad insights into the life of a familiar American icon. And since its generous taste for Groucho’s wit will probably leave you hungry for more, it’s nice to know the Marx Brothers are still alive and well on celluloid.