Sometimes those George S. Kaufman or S. J. Perelman vehicles for the Marx Brothers work like gangbusters. (I could watch A NIGHT AT THE OPERA over and over.) Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you’re aware of how simplistic the scripts are. Mostly you give yourself over to the shenanigans and laugh at the flimsiest of jokes. For example, Kaufman’s COCOANUTS works chiefly because the Brothers can put it over. When Groucho quips about prison, “Twelve years at Leavenworth or eleven years at twelve-worth,” the groaner is accompanied by his flashing eyes and those painted on house shingles which twitch like brows—and you’re more than happy to give over a giggle or two to that fabulous face.
Robert Brustein and Hankus Netsky’s klezmer musical, THE KING OF SECOND AVENUE, (based on an 1893 novel by Israel Zangwill) reminded me of those Marx Brothers scripts. The new musical (@ New Rep through March 1st) is shot through with sardonic asides and winks to the audience, like Groucho’s conspiratorial nods, as if to freely admit that the joke is plenty lame. Like those madhouse Marx Brothers movies, Brustein et al owe a considerable debt to the zany crew who deliver the goods, especially Jeremiah Kissel and Will LeBow, who finesse any number of variations on the Henny Youngman standby, “Take my wife, please.” (Substitute fish, pants, daughter, anything you like.) Kissel and LeBow make it dance like Nijinsky.
Brustein moves Zangwill’s trickster, “SCHNORRER” plot to New York City, outside a Yiddish theater which has seen better days. He sprinkles delightful Yiddish phrases throughout (and laboriously explains them) which made me wish he had explained less and demonstrated more. His out of work actors, he tells us, performed Yiddish versions of HAMLET and LEAR back in the day. So why couldn’t we hear a line or two? If only he had trusted that his audience would get it even if they don’t speak Yiddish. (I’ll bet the cadence which is almost identical in Yiddish and English would have tripped the listeners to the familiar Shakespearean speech.)
Director Matthew ‘Motl’ Didner runs his cast from pillar to post to connect the rather thin dots of plot, which have LeBow and the Yiddish actors outsmarting a smarmy movie producer (Kissel at his very best) and talking him out of his money and his pants, not to mention his salmon (all enshrined deliciously in song), thereby bestowing enough cash on LeBow’s daughter (Abby Goldfarb) and her penniless beau (Remo Airaldi) to get married. Alex Pollock, Kathy St. George and Ken Cheeseman add their considerable comic talents to the hilarity.
Although I liked (loved) Netsky’s score a lot more than I liked the book or the lyrics, I have to admit I share LeBow’s generous sentiments when his character pronounces to Kissel, “Against my will, I’m feeling some affection for you.” That I did for THE KING OF SECOND AVENUE...in spite of myself.