A Nod Is As Good As a Wink

When iTheatre Collaborative debuted last season, it did so with a pledge to produce unconventional, seldom-seen plays. The company kept that promise, at first, with estimable productions of Underneath the Lintel, Bee-Luther-Hatchee, and a holiday pageant that was both hip and festive. But iTheatre seems to have already forgotten its mission statement, or is at least setting it aside long enough to produce a run-of-the-mill comedy, probably in order to sell a fistful of tickets. Either way, fans of the company worry that its new production of the tried-and-true Three Men on a Horse indicates iTheatre is morphing into just another "little theater" -- something our local arts scene can do without.

Three Men on a Horse is a frothy caper by Broadway legend George Abbott and John Cecil Holm that riffs on the kind of comic mobsters Damon Runyon made famous. This time out, the goons are out after a down-on-his-luck greeting-card poet with the ability to pick winning horses -- so long as he doesn't bet on them.

"If this show had a musical score, it could be another Guys and Dolls," says director Charles Sinclair. "It's that well-written. But people have forgotten this play. I don't know when anyone's done it around here."

We've hardly had the chance to forget Three Men on a Horse. The show opened on Broadway in 1935, ran forever, and was made into a hit movie. It's been revived on Broadway three times (once in 1993 starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman) and was adapted as a musical, Let It Ride, in 1961. It's the sort of show one might expect from Theater Works or Mesa Encore Theater, but not from an avant-garde company like iTheatre.

Still, Sinclair swears that Three Men qualifies because it hasn't been produced in Phoenix for a while. "So we're really not out of our element with this show," he says. "Okay, it's comparatively light fare for this company, but it's a very stylistic play, too. And you can't do heavy stuff all the time. You need some lighter stuff to draw in different types of audiences."

Regardless of who shows up, it's unlikely the show's once-controversial cast of characters will offend anyone. Although the original script is chockablock with annoying, dated stereotypes -- a silly, submissive wife; a dim-witted Swedish maid; an African-American elevator operator written in the then-typical Stepin Fetchit fashion -- Sinclair has fixed all that. The maid is less of a dope in his version, and he's eliminated the black character altogether. "He's a ridiculous character who would never fly today," he says. "And anyway, we have no elevator, so we don't need an elevator operator."

Nor do we need another community theater company bringing us family fun for the masses. Please, iTheatre, review your mission statement. Bring us another season of eccentricity. Come back to us.

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