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Three Wise Guys

Joel Jones, Karl Kenzler, Ron McClary and Jeffrey C. Hawkins  


                                     By Ron Cohen


The Actors Company Theatre – more widely known by its acronym TACT – was started 25 years ago by a group of professional actors to reclaim in concert readings “great plays of literary merit.” Over the years it also branched out into seasons of full Off-Broadway productions and included a smattering of new works into its repertoire.


Now, as it must with all good things, TACT is bringing down its final curtain, and it’s doing so in light-hearted fashion, with a bauble of a new comedy, derived from two stories by the master of New York-ese patois and creator of some of the city’s most colorful streetwise and demimonde characters, Damon Runyon (1980-1946).


Those characters are best remembered today for inhabiting Frank Loesser’s classic musical Guys and Dolls. However, this new script, Three Wise Guys, co-written by Scott Alan Evans, TACT’s artistic executive director, and Jeffrey Couchman, provides a tasty slice of that quality known as Runyonesque.


The two Runyon stories involved are Dancing Dan’s Christmas and The Three Wise Guys. The play is set on Christmas Eve, 1932, and the titular fellows are the aforementioned Dancing Dan (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), a charmer of a small-time hood more known for his dancing ability than his underworld doings; Blondy Swanson (Karl Kenzler), a retired bootlegger, and The Dutchman (Joel Jones), a veteran burglar deep in debt to his bookie. Don’t worry, though, they’re all lovable types.


When Dan’s life is threatened by one of the town’s top bootleggers, the not-so-lovable Heine Schmitt, (Heine has a thing for Dan’s doll), the three decide it’s time to leave New York for a place Dutchman knows in Pennsylvania. But before they can do it, they get waylaid into participating as Santa Clause and his elves at a Long Island society party, where further complications ensue. And still more twists happen, when they finally get on the road to Pennsylvania.


The show is not exactly the madcap caper it may well intend to be. In its 80 intermission-less minutes of running time, it squeezes in more plot than laugh lines, including that familiar Christmas Eve turn of events: the birth of a baby.


Still, it’s a likeable entertainment, thanks in large part to an ingratiating cast, and Evans’ light but imaginative hand as director of the show as well as its co-writer. Hawkins, Jones and Kenzler slip into their Runyonesque skins as if to the manor (or rather, manner) born.


Equally adept are Ron McClary and John Plumpis, both handling a variety of roles. McClary goes from a friendly speakeasy bartender to a harried and veddy English butler and finally, a kindly country doctor in ultra-convincing fashion. John Plumpis is a threatening Heine Schmitt, while also making appearances as the butler’s equally English brother, a smarmy police witness and an understanding highway cop. Smartly aiding the transformations are the costumes by David Toser and wig design by Robert-Charles Vallance.


On the distaff side, Victoria Mack brings girlie charm both to Muriel, the chorus girl who’s Dan’s heartthrob, and to Clarabelle Cobb, a former chorus girl and the lost love of Blondy’s life. Dana Smith-Croll gets laughs as the uppity Long Island party hostess and also as Muriel’s ancient grandma, who still hangs up a Christmas stocking in hopes that Saint Nick will soon be there.


The proceedings are enlivened with several theatrical flourishes, most notably the shadow play and puppetry that help dramatize the script’s several bits of exposition. On a couple of occasions, the guys also favor us with a dollop of well-harmonized singing. The clothes line motif that covers Jason Ardizzone-West’s otherwise evocative set design at the show’s start is problematic, but the hanging sheets prove useful in providing for the silhouetted action of the expository moments.


In short, Three Wise Guys may not be a “great” play, but with its homage to Runyon it can lay claim to TACT’s credo of doing plays of “literary merit.” Furthermore, it should leave the company’s final audiences with smiles on their faces.


Off-Broadway play

Playing at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row

410 West 42nd Street


Playing until April 14