The Vortex, June 21
If the idea of Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, and Albert Einstein chucking their respective intellectual pursuits to pen gags for the Marx Brothers sounds a bit screwball to you, well, you're chugging down the same track as this most recent effort from Tongue and Groove Theatre. Eggheads, which does indeed imagine those three geniuses as fledgling Tinseltown dramatists, serves this fancy in fond tribute to the cinematic screwball comedies of the 1930s. Uncle Albert, Uncle Franz, and Uncle Sigmund have been recruited to write jokes by the Marxes themselves, and as they head to Hollywood by train, their paths cross that of a Broadway playwright also being recruited to write for the movies. Only he isn't interested in the job, despite the fact that his latest effort landed on the Great White Way like Black Tuesday hit Wall Street. After said playwright, whose humiliation is doubled by the discovery of his wife cheating on him the same night his play bombs, drinks himself into a stupor, studio agent Smitty -- named like a he but really a resourceful and keen-witted she -- is able to shanghai him onto the same locomotive carrying the uncles out West.
What follows in this script, adapted by David Yeakle from an unproduced screenplay by Blessing on the Moon author Joseph Skibell, is the same kind of comic romance familiar from the films of Capra, Hawks, and Sturges: Boy meets girl, boy argues with girl, girl argues with boy, boy and girl finally realize they're really in love. Set against a cross-country journey à la It Happened One Night, on a train that might be straight out of Twentieth Century or The Palm Beach Story, with an ongoing parade of wacky G-men, goons, and loony tunes who'd be right at home in Ball of Fire or The Great McGinty, the friction between these two funny people ultimately sparks into the flames of romance -- just like in the movies. The affection of the creators for these comedies is apparent in every rapid-fire exchange of snappy patter, every serving of Thirties lingo, every shuffle and kick to a peppy pop song of the day.
What made this tribute so surprising and charming (and worth writing about even after the show has closed) was the degree to which the large company -- 18 performers in all -- successfully channeled the spirit of those comic films. Despite the fact that the specific style of screwball comedies was old decades before these actors were born, they breezed through the scenes here, cracking wise and slinging slang, as nimbly as Busby Berkeley chorines tapping their way down 42nd Street. Broad comic roles, such as the dense FBI agents who say everything in sync and mirror each other's movements, could have easily become forced and labored, yet, as Omid Ghorashi and Adam Martinez did as the mirror-image G-men, they kept the touch light and their characterizations crisp. Nowhere was this truer than in the female lead. Stepping into the high heels of Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck is no easy feat, yet Monica Asencio managed it effortlessly, imbuing her Smitty with the cocked-hip confidence, street savvy, and period glamour of the smartest screwball heroines. To see such assuredness of style, combined with the sense that the actors were really having fun, was a kick.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been such a surprise given the director. Yeakle has worked such magic before, getting modern casts to understand and deliver the comic treasures of commedia and vaudeville in the style they were intended. He is gifted that way. But here, his direction was especially assured, building on the promise of last season's Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One) and recalling his comedic triumph of The Three Cuckolds at UT several years ago. It's a treat to see the past glories of comedy made to live again and to see Yeakle continuing to thrive at it. He may be one of our community's few artists who makes his greatest steps forward by looking backward.
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