HIGH MARX

If you saw Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer, you may have some insight into the final offering of the season by Actors Theatre of Phoenix, now playing in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center.

In that 1960 film, Olivier portrays Archie Rice, a vaudeville song-and-
dance man down on his luck, and destroyed by self-delusion.
In 1985, as a senior at the University of Southern California, Frank Ferrante created a one-man show for himself called An Evening With Groucho in which he impersonated the late, great comic. Spotted by Groucho's son Arthur, Ferrante was hired to continue his impersonation as Groucho in a new play Arthur Marx had co-written with Robert Fisher, titled Groucho: A Life in Review. The show opened the following year in New York, and Ferrante played the crusty comedian for 254 performances off-Broadway, earning himself a Theatre World Award. He repeated the assignment in London, where he was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Comedy Performance of the Year.

By now, a thousand performances later, he should be eligible for the Archie Rice Award for Venerable Vaudevillians.

Not that Ferrante's act is in any way stale. On the contrary, he is present onstage with such an open heart that an audience of curmudgeons could not resist his abrasive charm.

Accompanied by pianist Jim Furmston, Ferrante enters from the audience in his own bare face. He invites the audience to join him in a reminiscence of Groucho. Then, sitting at a make

up table at the side of the stage, he uses a thick black marker to draw on the most rudimentary of mustaches and the most shaggy of eyebrows. He already sports a clown's hair and an ample nose, but this is not a performance based on resemblance. It is rather an uncanny assumption of the total personality (at least as depicted on the screen) of one of history's most memorable comics.

Brandishing an unlighted cigar, for the next 90 minutes, this reincarnation of Groucho Marx waltzes us through the high points of his life in entertainment: from his discovery in vaudeville, through the golden age of comedy in film, to the ridiculous television quiz show You Bet Your Life.

Along the way, he will drop all the best names, usually with an anecdote about each. These tidbits are dropped in among songs and dialogue from Groucho's film repertoire, recalling some of the funniest movies ever made.

The surprising thing about An Evening With Groucho is how smoothly Ferrante seduces and controls his audience. Playing shamelessly to the people in the front row, he manages to include them in the act and make them feel good about their participation. (After the intermission, every single one returned for more abuse.

) Ferrante often dives even deeper into the auditorium, playfully clowning with any bald man he sees. Not every actor could get away with bestowing a kiss on the noggin of a stranger.

What is most endearing about Ferrante's performance is the obvious joy he takes in sharing his love of Groucho with the audience. Every silly flutter, every goosy undulation, every frantic leap is an ode to the ridiculous. Abetted by Furmston at the piano, Ferrante hits the highlights of Groucho's amazing career. Best among these is the climax of the first act, "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady," and a thoroughly disrespectful "Send In the Clowns" with altered lyrics that should make Sondheim spin in his gravity.

As a child, I loved Abbott and Costello almost as much as Bugs Bunny. The Three Stooges were so dumb that I found them unfunny, although they look subtle in comparison to the Jim Carrey school of clowning. I appreciated the Marx Brothers more and more as I got older and older.

What is interesting about Ferrante's performance is the relationship of Groucho's act to the old English music hall of which Archie Rice is a surviving symbol. How hard they were willing to work for a laugh! They earned our smiles by the sweat of their brow. Comedy is hard work, and Ferrante works until he drops.--

 
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