ANIMAL CRACKERS Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s fizzy revival of the Marx Brothers’ 1928 stage show proves the value of spontaneity served live.
The classic Marx Brothers films are like anarchy in a bottle. Revivals of the stage pieces, if once removed from the actual siblings, uncork the container and let the arcane, antic chaos bubble out. The nonsensical Animal Crackers was both the Marx Brothers’ last Broadway show and their second Paramount film. You can watch the movie, of course, but the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s fizzy revival of the 1928 stage show (through June 4) proves the value of spontaneity served live. The shenanigans start slow, but bring on Ed Hoopman’s loping, loose-kneed Groucho character, Captain Spaulding, cigar in hand, greasepaint moustache and leer in place, and let delirium, double entendre, and punnery rule. Who knew Hoopman had it in him?
The Long Island country-house setting may be grand, but the Lyric uses the adaptation whittled down by director Henry Wishcamper for his 2009 Goodman Theatre revival. Deploying just nine actors, most doing double duty (and sometimes slipping from one persona to another before our eyes), it zips through George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind’s perfunctory mix of silliness and romance in a little over two hours, with as much time given to the love songs (their saucy period choreography by Rachel Bertone) as to the shenanigans of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. (The actor standing in for underutilized Zeppo gets to play a romantic lead as well.)
The plot’s as thin as rice paper and less cohesive: the imperious if clueless Mrs. Rittenhouse (Leigh Barrett in the Margaret Dumont role) is throwing a party for eminent explorer Spaulding when a valuable painting goes missing. Somehow the mystery is solved via a dream sequence in which Groucho plays Louis XV leching after Madame du Barry — go figure. But along the way, we get bits and more bits by the Brothers and some period love songs (not to mention a “Long Island Lowdown” with a mean tap dance) rendered at the Lyric by Aimee Doherty and Jordan Ahnquist as Mrs. Rittenhouse’s sly debutante daughter and an alliterative gossip columnist and Grant MacDermott and Merissa Czyz as a struggling painter and his crafty newspapering sweetheart.
Genius may be inimitable, but, of course, that stops no one from exercising the sincerest sort of flattery. And director Spiro Veloudos has come up with the goods in Hoopman’s shameless Groucho and Nael Nacer’s fast-talking Chico (whose plan for solving the art heist goes beyond the comic to the surreal). As at the Goodman, Harpo is essayed by a woman, Alycia Sacco, whose raised leg makes its way into any number of arms and whose expressive demeanor wafts between gamine and grimace. These three may not be the real McCoys, but they get high Marx for handling their borrowed lunacy with straight-faced aplomb.