Not only will you not find anything else like The Pinch Brothers in the Bawdy House in Marxfest, you won’t find anything else like it on any stage in the city. You’ve heard me rave about Jonny Porkpie’s shows Pretencion and Deconstructing Burlesque. He is a rare bird of a sort that used to darken the sky in thick flocks: a playwright working in the variety theatre, or if you prefer, a variety artist who is nudging his entertainments in the direction of what they call the legit stage, the Theatah. His roots were in the latter and by happenstance he began to run with the burlesque crowd, and now he is one its pillars. What I like so much about his work is not just the obvious kindred sensibility, but the thrill of watching theatre be BORN.
He is what I wish Broadway producers would pay attention to. Not because he and his motley crew or this show are ready for Broadway. (Though a small handful of them could no doubt handle an assignment like that with ease). The reason I wish that producers would pay attention is because THIS USED TO BE THEIR DEVELOPMENT PROCESS. Vaudeville, burlesque and the variety theatre were the engine that produced the stars, comedians, singers, dancers, songwriters, joke writers for Broadway during its greatest age. When I look at Jonny’s shows I can’t imagine that the early shows of Harrigan and Hart, or Weber and Fields, or Leon Erroll were terribly much different. Don’t expect polish (although individual turns, like Donny Vomit’s sword swallowing and Peekaboo Pointe’s dancing and Rebecca Hart’s naughty song do possess it). Don’t expect the same show every night. Don’t expect harmlessness. Do expect spontaneity. Do expect a much wittier and livelier and original script than you will get at any show that was written by a committee through some “workshopping process”. Do expect honesty. Do expect to be constantly surprised and delighted and kind of on the edge of your seat — because so are the performers.
Bawdy House is the Marx Brothers burlesque show the Marx Brothers would have made if the Marx Brothers had made burlesque shows. Porkpie’s script sends up the lame plots of the MGM years (all about “saving the theatre”…not too different from A Day at the Races. Because of its setting, it’s like a mix between that and Lady of Burlesque. The result is something like Love Happy, with better jokes and more skin.
The Marx Brothers’ characters are mashed up with the personae of the contemporary burlesque stars who play them. Thus we get a Porkpie/ Groucho who mixes the relentless nonsensical wit of the Paramount years with the First Amendment freedom to take his trousers off. Relentlessly cheerful and positive, Porkpie’s character strikes me as Bugs Bunny like, and what’s a gas is the number of levels: even as we see the fictitious impresario run around trying to hold his show together, we get to watch Jonathan Van Gieson running around trying to do same. This is what circus scholars call “the spectacle of actuality” and you mistake me sorely if you take it for a criticism. It is precisely what my own shows are about. Tigger/ Harpo is sort of on point for “danger” in the show; he’s the one you keep watching for a surprise, and he delivers more than a few. Hint: keep an eye peeled for where he keeps his Harpo horn. The coolest revelation was L.A.’s Scout Durwood a.k.a. Lady Scoutington as a female Chico. The combination of the dime store Italian accent and her bellissima countenance make an impression as much like Sophia Loren as it is like Chicalini. And — this ought to be enough to sell tickets alone — Abe Goldfarb/Bastard Keith does double duty as Zeppo (mixed with his MGM era substitutes) and Margaret Dumont.
A rotating cast of burlesque regulars make up the company. We especially want to encourage Angie Pontani to do lots more comedy. I have never seen anybody so ecstatic to be on a stage as when she is in a comedy sketch. Enthusiasm is a production value, and the eagerness of her character (who keeps auditioning and getting rejected) is hilarious. And don’t worry, she (and the others) eventually do what their producer wants them to do, which involves lots of dresses dropping to the floor. On the night we attended, Jo “Boobs” Weldon had a cameo as a theatre critic. It’s a shame the real ones don’t actually look like that.
Is this review laced with bias? Yes! I’m in bed with them all. In fact, I’ll actually be IN this show this coming Thursday, making this easily the most self-serving review I’ve ever written! You should come. Here’s where to get tickets: http://www.marxfest.com/pinchbros.html
For more on The Pinch Brothers in “The Bawdy House” go here.