Golden years

Right-thinking people--and Woody Allen agrees with me on this--would much rather live in the 1930s than endure our current decade, if somehow they had a choice.

No, not the real Thirties, with its bread lines, fascist pogroms, lynchings, and all of that. I mean the champagne-laced Fred and Ginger Thirties, with their boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl-back-again sexual dynamic, their amiable Bertie and Jeeves class distinctions, their rooftop nightclubs, art-deco ocean liners, amateur athletics, gentlemen's codes of honor, feisty females, and manly men, all of whom continually dressed to the nines, even for bed.

Those Thirties.
Unless the Japanese can come up with a reliable time machine accessibly priced for the whole family, however, we're all stuck right here on the cusp of the 21st century. But that doesn't mean we can't escape for a while by dipping into a P.G. Wodehouse novel, or by attending a performance of Cocoanuts, now playing at Theatre Three.

This revival of the old Marx Brothers romp pairs the writing of zingermeister George S. Kaufman with the music and lyrics of the legendary Irving Berlin.

Cocoanuts actually hit Broadway in 1925, but it has that fizzy-dizzy feel associated with the let's-forget-there's-a-Depression-going-on-Thirties. A screwball look at shady dealings in a Florida hotel, it was a smash at the time and was later made into the Marx Brothers' first movie.

This production takes its lead from a successful revival of the play produced by Washington, D.C.'s influential Arena Stage in the late 1980s. Like the D.C. production, Theatre Three opts to have the Marx Brothers characters played by Marx Brothers imitators, rather than by actors creating their own interpretations of the roles.

That's a big risk, one that has canny members of the audience chewing their cuds in concern before the action starts. Can a theatrical company really pull off a play that relies on the trick of resurrecting icons like the Marxes? Won't it be a bit like watching an Elvis impersonator--one who may sing and wiggle every bit as well as Elvis, but will never live up to the Big E legend?

Not to worry. Though it takes a bit of adjustment, you stop making comparisons between the real Marxes and the actors playing them about one-sixteenth into the first act. After that, the play becomes a goofy delight.

Things get off to a promising start with the first number, "Florida by the Sea," where you realize that Berlin is in his customary tuneful form, and that the actors really can sing. But the production doesn't officially get moving until Groucho's entrance. This is the real sticking point of the play, as a less than scintillating Groucho would make for a very long evening. At first, David May's portrayal jars a bit, because neither his voice nor his body English capture the gruff looniness of the original. But by the conclusion of his solo number, "Why Am I a Hit with the Ladies?" (a question I often ask myself), you're won over.

May develops his own rhythm in the part: not quite as acerbic or anarchic as the real Groucho, but having considerable charm nevertheless. When May finally utters his last line, "Poo-poo-pi-doo, that's a lot a' dough!" you're ready to take him home with you.

John Ranoine as Chico is a different story. He has the Italianate Marx down to the ground. This production represents Ranoine's fourth time in the Chico role, and his portrayal is next to uncanny. Not only does he capture Chico's coiled and hunched physical stance and his Italian-sharpie bark, he also can sit down at the piano and trill the ivories every bit as proficiently as Chico. Wherever he is at this moment, Chico has to be pleased.

Anyone playing Harpo must burnish his comic timing and have both a dancer's physicality and a contortionist's facial control. Ashley Wood brings these qualities to the role. His only shortcoming is that he doesn't play the harp, which would be asking too much, anyway.

Zeppo, like Ringo Starr in another famous foursome, is a bit of an afterthought here, but Pat McAfee makes him a valuable contributor with his versatility in the singing and dancing departments. The rest of the cast is uniformly good as well, particularly Sharon Bunn in the Margaret Dumont role. With their chaotic cutups, the Marxes demand a straight woman of the first order, and Bunn delivers. Her ludicrous tango with Groucho is an exercise in how to play a complementary comic role.

Jonathan Beller also shines as Rob, the stout-hearted hotel clerk striving to become an architect. Beller has a straightforward singing and acting style that captures well the unaffected manliness of the Thirties hero. He warbles a duet of the show's signature tune, the great Berlin keeper "Always," with his love interest (the sweet-singing Arianna Movassagh), that is all the more effective for its simple, unembellished staging.

Everything else about this production is done just about as well as it can be. Staged in the round, the set has a clean, uncluttered space that's generally adorned with only the suggestion of props or scenery. Stairs lead to a raised tier that's neatly converted from a foyer to a bedroom in the second act.

Mostly, however, it's up to the actors and costume designer Bruce Coleman to capture the mood of the period, and both do a terrific job. Director Lawrence O'Dwyer is the man at the controls, and he drives the show at a fast comic clip that culminates in the boffo "Carmen" parody at the end.

There are nitwits out there who will scorn these and similar proceedings as mere escapism. These impoverished souls should consider J.R.R. Tolkien's remark when he was accused of dealing in escapist fiction. "It's the duty of every prisoner to escape," the great man said.

So do your duty. See this show.

Cocoanuts plays at Theatre Three through September 10. Call 871-3300 for ticket and performance information.