February 22, 2001

Coo Coo for Cocoanuts

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Arriving at the theater several minutes late on opening night, I was asked to wait outside with several other tardy audience members until the tap number on stage ended. When the song was over, they opened the doors and let us go in. “Oh, look. Here come the latecomers!,” shouted actor Brian Russell, the Groucho Marx incarnate in the Center for the Theater Arts production of George S. Kaufman’s The Cocoanuts. Embarrassingly, we walked across the stage, reddening from the laughter of the other members of the audience and the unexpected attention we were receiving.

This was typical of Russell’s spontaneous ad-libs and keen and reactive awareness of the audience. Russell’s Groucho plays Schlemmer, who runs a Florida hotel that is in financial trouble. Throughout the play, he is trying to get money quickly, either by winning the heart of the rich widow Mrs. Potter (Tracey Huffman) or by trying a scheme selling real estate, which is sabotaged by cohorts and petty thieves Chico/Willie (Marc Moritz) and Harpo/Sam (Ari Wishkoff ’01) — the comedic centers of attention. There is also a romantic subplot involving Bob (Michael Seth Benn ’02), a hotel employee and aspiring architect, and Polly Potter (Heidi Bretschger ’01) — the good guys. And then there are Penelope (Annie Hsu ’01) and Harvey (William Richert), who want to spoil everyone’s plans — the bad guys. But then the plot, as Russell so coyly points out after the audience is unreceptive to one of his jokes, is not what everyone came to see. I think his exact words were, “What did you come here to see, the plot? The guy gets the girl. You can go home.”

The most outstanding aspects of The Coconauts are the comedy and the animated nature of every aspect of the performance. The comedy was accurately and hysterically portrayed. Professional actors Russell and Moritz were impeccable representations of their respective Marx brothers, and they keep the audience on its toes with one hysterical misunderstanding after another. Wishkoff played Harpo’s Sam with an incredible and remarkably strong understanding of obvious physical humor.

However, Marx brothers’ comedy, that of high-brow quips and plays on words juxtaposed with genius physical humor, is not for everyone. That said, director Bruce Levitt’s decision to interject skits from other Marx brother performances in order to expand on the original Cocoanuts script was a great addition.

It is the sense of humor of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations — not ours. That is to say, it is a type of comedy that we are not entirely used to, but that does not imply that our generation cannot appreciate it. After all, I certainly did.

The airbrushed Florida set and lighting provided the perfect cartoon-like backdrop for the show. All of the characters had exaggerated personalities and facial expressions, making for a very lively performance. However, in one scene involving two adjacent hotel rooms, the scenery obstructs the sightline of one of the rooms for most of the audience, making the scene slightly confusing for viewers in some of the seats (in particularly, those of the latecomers).

The incorporation of the band into the scenery provided an interesting perspective and added even more to the upbeat, light-hearted nature of the performance.

Benn and Bretschger were that adorably sugary, innocent couple everyone is rooting for. These students’ performances were flawless, endearing, and funny. The sinister Hsu and Richert were convincing as the bad guys, although Hsu’s performance was slightly stiff.

The hotel bellhops (Jared Emerson-Johnson ’03, Niki Hayes, Viki Roberts ’02, Amy Schleunes ’03, and Lauren Wells ’04) and guests (Stefanie Goldberg ’02, Anthony Hogrebe, Darra Messing ’04, Peggy Powers ’03, Jessica Rounds ’04, and Michael Wolland ’03) were impeccably cast. Each of these characters were outstanding in their individual roles. In other words, the chorus was without a weak link. Their singing and dancing talents were excellent compliments to the show’s comedy, and they were cast in a way that beautifully showcased each of their individual talents.

Animated, upbeat, and consistent, the CTA’s performance of The Cocoanuts is incredibly entertaining and a great way to spend an evening. Walk in with an open mind and an alert sense of humor and you will not be disappointed.

Archived article by Sara Katz