At the Theater: Schmucks, by Roy Smiles (VV01)
[Ha--you thought I was going to forget about my little challenge, didn't you? Well, I didn't.]
I saw a play this month. It was called Schmucks, and it played at the Wilma Theater. In my opinion, the Wilma Theatre is the best venue for new theater in Philadelphia; the Walnut Street is older and pays more, but they also only do old-timey plays that everyone’s done a thousand times already, and half of them are musicals. I don’t think this is inherently bad; just inherently boring. This is why I go to the Wilma.
Of course, the problem with doing new theater is that sometimes you pick a stinker of a play, and oh, man, was Schmucks a stinker. Jesus, this was a terrible play.
The premise is this: in 1965, during the great Northeast Blackout, Groucho Marx (Ron Crawford) and Lenny Bruce (Erik Jensen) meet in a diner with a guy named Joe Klein (Ian Alda). Joe Klein, in this case, is not the newspaper reporter who anonymously wrote Primary Colors, but is just some guy that we’re meant to think is Woody Allen. Joe wants help with his act, Groucho and Lenny yell at each other, there’s a waitress, then a ghost shows up. This is about as intricate as the story gets.
Now, I don’t want you to think that when I say, “Then a ghost shows up,” that I’m somehow making light of a nuanced script that necessitated the appearance of a ghost—after all, you can gloss over anything and make it sound stupid. The fact, though, is that the ghost is as arbitrary as the diner, as pointlessly unexpected as the waitress’s past as a prostitute, as bizarrely random as Groucho and Lenny in the first place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As far as performances go, Jensen—who’s starring in Ron Moore’s upcoming TV pilot Virtuality—was quite good, and merits continued attention. Alda and Clouthier are mediocre, but it’s not necessarily their fault; they’re working with material that is itself mediocre and boring enough to make even talented actors seem like schmucks. Crawford is a substantial failure; not only does he never come close to capturing Groucho Marx’s distinctive walk, his trademark rolling eyes and waggling eyebrows, or the unmistakable cadence of his speech and manner, but he also kept forgetting his lines.
There’s no way around the fact that it’s the script that let the actors down (except for Crawford; he managed to let down a lousy script). Smiles, who apparently once wrote the best play in New Zealand (it wasn’t this one), has constructed a work of blundering stupidity, a half-baked premise that he’s tried to fill out with clichés, coy historical references, and sly winks about his own structural failures.
Schmucks is probably best understood as a series of object lessons in how not to write a play. To that end:
1. Don’t point out your faults in the script; just cut them. Winking at them does nothing to obviate the fault in the first place, and in the second place it informs the audience that you knew there was something stupid in there, and decided to keep it in anyway. Ten minutes of Joe Klein’s unfunny comedy routine is indeed not funny, so good job on that; but the fact that you, the playwright, and the characters know that it’s not funny doesn’t change the fact that we just had to sit through ten minutes of unfunny comedy. Having Joe Klein say the premise of your play is “unbelievable!” fifty times in the first fifteen minutes of the play doesn’t make it any more believable. Lenny Bruce telling Groucho Marx that his anecdote was tedious DOESN’T MAKE THE ANECDOTE ANY LESS TEDIOUS.
2. Giving someone a sad backstory is not the same as making a character sympathetic. You’ve got your waitress in the first act, and she’s basically just a functionary, clearly there for Joe Klein to explain the exposition to (“The lights are out all over the city!” “Don’t you know who that is? That’s Groucho Marx!”); so, when halfway through the play you reveal that she used to be a prostitute because she came from a broken home, NO ONE CARES. This has nothing to do with her character, and her character has nothing to do with the plot (which would be a feat if Smiles had managed it, considering how thin the plot was in the first place).
3. A play is not a good place for a Yiddish vocabulary lesson. If you need to introduce a character who doesn’t know what you’re talking about just so someone can explain what a “Dybbuk” is and where the word “Kike” comes from, you’ve already failed. Either trust that the audience knows what the hell you’re saying, or USE DIFFERENT WORDS.
4. What Groucho Marx can do—deliver one-liners with a fluency that every comedian in the world envies—is hard. This means that writing for Groucho Marx when you don’t have Groucho himself is also hard. Unbelievably hard. You (Roy) can’t do it, and it shouldn’t have taken you more than ten seconds to realize that.
5. When writing a “history” play, you need to pick the historical figures whose lives match your ideas, not cram their lives into what you think the play should be about. Groucho and Harpo never fought in their lives, and Harpo’s appearance as a ghost,* with his ten minute lip-synch number (Ten minutes! Another lesson: there were three Marx brothers in A Night in Casablanca, and for good reason), is supposed to, what? Show how sad Groucho Marx was? Why are we going after the non-existent tension between Harpo and Groucho, rather than the real, genuine tension between Groucho and Chico (also dead), who was an inveterate gambler, alcoholic, and womanizer? There’s a whole play between Groucho and Chico, and Roy Smiles wants to make his play about the two guys that never fought.
While we’re at it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Groucho, in 1965, to say that he never worked again after the last Marx brothers movie, when he’d only just finished hosting You Bet Your Life (one of the most popular radio and television programs in history) for sixteen years, and was CURRENTLY FILMING ANOTHER TELEVISION SHOW. This show would ultimately be poorly received (in Britain, where it aired, leading to further questions about just what the hell Groucho was doing in New York), and Groucho’s real comeback wouldn’t come until the early seventies, when he SOLD OUT Carnegie Hall—but are we really meant to think that a man that’s been working in show business since the invention of show business doesn’t recognize a lull when he sees one?
This is all emblematic of the fact that Smiles doesn’t really care about anyone in the play except for Lenny Bruce. And he does indeed care about Bruce. This part is written with complexity and sensitivity, a wonderful portrait of a man whose sense of humor outruns his good sense, and whose love for the world has turned to a fearsome bitterness that is characterized by an omnipresent mockery. His heroin addiction, his trauma over his service in World War II—these are moving and powerful scenes. Indeed, it’s a wonder that Lenny Bruce’s part was written by the same author. It’s a part that might have actually redeemed a better play, but in something as relentlessly mediocre as Schmucks it only serves to throw into stark contrast the extent of Smiles’ failure.
In summation: I have a hundred monkeys in my basement that routinely pull better scripts than this out of their collective monkey butts. Schmucks is not only unworthy of the Wilma, which has done so much quality work in the past, it is unworthy of every theater, everywhere, and the sooner it’s put out to pasture, the better.
*Oh, did I spoil it for you? Are you not going to see the play now that I’ve revealed who the “friend” is? GOOD.