I’ve become a big fan of The Actors Company Theatre. They have a clear sense of who they are -- a confidence in their approach to storytelling. With their attention to detail, down to the clever design of their theater programs, or "Tactbills," TACT has built a reputation as a uniquely innovative repertory company. Seeing one of their shows is like hanging out with friends. I have come to this party late, unfortunately. After 25 years of successfully bringing little known plays to the stage, TACT is closing its doors with this production, going out on a high note.
It is a charming farewell. Adapted from two Damon Runyon short stories, Three Wise Guys takes place in Runyon's stomping ground, New York City in the 30’s. In a tiny speakeasy redoubtable barman Good Time Charley (Ron McClary) is mixing up a heady concoction of hot Rum and Cognac, or "Tom and Jerry." It’s Christmas Eve and Blondy Swanson (Karl Kenzler) has come in to perform his annual Reading of the Letter — that is, the tearful recitation of the "Dear Blondy" letter from Miss Clarabelle Cobb (Victoria Mack) the sweetheart he let slip through his fingers 6 years ago. He loved her but he loved bootlegging more. The Dutchman (Joel Jones), erstwhile safe cracker, unlucky gambler and part-time Santa, arrives in disgust. Christmas is not doing him any favors either. When their carefree pal Dancing Dan (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) breezes in, the trio of “wise guys” is complete. He may be broke, but not even empty pockets can dim Dancing Dan's high spirits as he tries on the Dutchman's Santa costume and dances around.
As the Tom and Jerry's flow, the guys grow braver, merrier and even break into song. Enter racketeer Heinie Schmitz (John Plumpis) the tough guy with a soft spot for pretty chorus girl Muriel O'Neill. Unfortunately Dancing Dan has also taken a shine to the fair Muriel and Heinie is out to settle that score. After making their narrow escape the three wise guys determine that retreat is the better part of valor. The action proceeds with various digressions and surprises, including a detour to a party in a mansion in Long Island, presided over by Mrs. Elizabeth Albright (Dana Smith-Croll), to a sweet conclusion.
It's a quirky little story, more of a fable really. Damon Runyon paints with words, in that unmistakable Runyon patois that marries the commonplace with an odd formality of language. The actors handle the dialect well, with only the the occasional lapse in accent. Several actors play multiple roles, effectively creating distinct characters with each costume change. Among this uniformly excellent cast, Dana Smith-Croll stands out as both nutty Gammer O'Neill and the alternately elegant and mercenary "Bitsy" Albright. She and John Plumpis as Heinie have great chemistry. He may be a tough guy but he is not above a little fun.
The ingenious set design deserves a curtain call of its own. Designer Jason Ardizzone-West uses everything from set pieces to video projections to silhouettes and puppetry to bring the scenes to life. Ardizzone-West fills the stage without crowding it, almost reveling in the limitations of working with a small space. Clotheslines draped with laundry make a clever stage curtain, strung across the small stage easily by the actors during various scene changes. Wisely curated vintage props, excellent period costume and nostalgic big band melodies complete the picture.
Three Wise Guys is a little gem of a play. So much of Damon Runyon’s storytelling takes place in dialogue, he's a natural for the stage. As with all screwball comedies, the actors' commitment and timing are what make the performance work. One self-conscious moment and the house of cards will tumble. Director Scott Alan Evans keeps the action moving without sacrificing the quieter moments that give the humor its zest. It is difficult to pull off, but the cast make it look easy. I am sincerely distressed to know there won’t be more TACT productions for us to enjoy. Thank goodness they have archived much of their work. We'll at least have that to console us.
(Photo by Marielle Solan)