STONEHAM -- During their lives, the Marx Brothers had plenty of professional ups and downs -- Groucho most of all, from Broadway to Hollywood to quizmastering "You Bet Your Life" on TV. Now the most articulate Marx is the subject of a hilarious new show debuting at Stoneham Theatre. Written by his son, Arthur Marx, along with Robert Fisher, "Groucho!" goes beneath the painted mustache and arched eyebrows to reveal a miser intermittently tormented by loneliness and bitterness. Those conditions, though, never got in the way of a decent punchline.
Star Gabe Kaplan (still most famous for TV's "Welcome Back Kotter") embodies the prickly comedy legend from youth to senescence. One suspects that his Groucho, a mostly genial bloke, is a lot easier to take than the original. At Stoneham, Kaplan plays out various scenes on a living-room-style set with the help of local performers Robert Saoud (as brother Chico) and utility player Jennifer Valentine. As the show begins, Kaplan readily admits he doesn't resemble Groucho. "I can see what you're thinking -- his face is too round," he wisecracks. "Welcome to show business."
The biographical voyage adheres (mostly) to a chronological format -- the boys' impoverished childhood on 93d Street in New York, mother Minnie's fierce belief that these kids had talent, and the quartet's eventual emergence as theatrical stars. But "Groucho!" is also, and surprisingly, a love letter to Chico, a card shark, womanizer, and demon pianist. Chronically short of funds due to his gambling addiction, Chico made sure the boys kept working, and over time, this motley crew transformed from slapdash comics doing shtick to stars of Broadway and then films.
Classic Marx set-ups and cracks (such as Groucho's comment about not belonging to any club that would have him as a member) are interspersed with obscure gems from the group's vaudevillian days. Kaplan's mimicry is, at times, uncanny. He does all of Groucho's voices, from snide to flirtatious to cutting to frail, and we see the man in full.
Only a few scenes drag, mostly because of overwriting. They tend to be the ones with the adroitly versatile Valentine, who plays a nosy reporter and a composite of Groucho's wives. Even these segments are redeemed by amusing moments, as when Valentine bemoans the comedian's lack of romance and he comments that when he sees flowers and candles on a table, he presumes "somebody's buried under there."
This is a revised version of the show Kaplan did for HBO in 1982, which then toured the country. In its current incarnation, Kaplan pulls off a tour de force, especially as late-period Groucho (beret, whisper, Swiss-watch timing). With Saoud as a soulfully winning Chico, "Groucho!" is an amusing and worthy tribute to the founder of comic Marxism.
A play in two acts by Arthur Marx and Robert Fisher.
Directed by: Gabe Kaplan.
Lights, Mark Lanks. Costumes,
Rachel Padula Shufelt.
Presented by Larry Spellman and Stoneham Theatre.
Through June 27; 781-279-2200.