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Minnie's Boys


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National Jewish Theater

What exactly is laughter anyway? The facial muscles contract automatically, the diaphragm heaves, all in response to a series of complex mental associations. There's nothing else like it in the human experience, except for tears of sadness.

What triggers this profound reflex action? Why do some people laugh at a joke while others sit there stone faced? And what good does laughter do us anyway? It must have some sort of survival value.

These questions seem especially puzzling when one considers the Marx Brothers. They are among the best-known comedians in the world. Everyone seems to respond to the insults, puns, and wacky situations in their movies. Yet many of the Marx Brothers' jokes are real groaners, and their shtick tends to be silly and cruel. Why do we laugh?

I got a clue to the answer while watching Minnie's Boys at the National Jewish Theater. Actually, I got the clue before the show began, in a program note written by Sheldon Patinkin, the artistic director of the NJT.

"You might call it a form of ghetto psychology gone amuck," says Patinkin, commenting on the perennial appeal of Marx Brothers movies. "It was Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo against the world; no one not a Marx Brother was safe from their incredible scorn, their lack of respect. . . . Anyone was an enemy--the underdog had gone haywire."

Now that makes sense. Laughter bears one thing in common with virtually every other pleasurable experience--it affords a relief from tension. That's probably its survival value--those who lacked the ability to laugh failed to propagate because they dropped dead from anxiety.

Almost everything that produces real belly laughter involves relief from the tension produced by veiled aggression, and this, I suspect, is what makes the Marx Brothers so funny. For aggression to be funny, there can be no sympathy for the victims, and the Marx Brothers allow none. As perpetual outsiders, they have license to puncture the pretensions of the pompous and inflict all manner of humiliation. After all, their victims have it coming because they've exiled the brothers from acceptable society. These four persecuted siblings are the underdogs, and since everyone feels like an underdog at some point, everyone can identify with their rage and revenge.

Minnie's Boys supports this theory. It's about Minnie Marx and her five sons, and how four of them become the Marx Brothers. Minnie, played by Alene Robertson, is a protective, overbearing Jewish mother--an underdog with bite. Her husband, Frenchie, is an unsuccessful tailor, so there's never enough money, and the boys are always gambling and getting into fights. It's no wonder the neighbor ladies look down their noses at Minnie as she struggles to keep up appearances and nurture the musical talent she perceives in her boys. The material is pretty thin, but it establishes the members of the Marx family as underdogs who are vulnerable to greedy landlords, gossiping neighbors, and callous booking agents. These Marx brothers are given every license to be the Marx Brothers.

Despite the plausibility, however, not much works in the play unless it's a direct, blatant imitation of the famous Marx Brothers antics. The songs range from the silly "Four Nightingales," a tribute to the brothers' first vaudeville act, to the sappy "They Give Me Love," Minnie's ode to her sweet sons. And the script, written by Groucho's son Arthur and Robert Fisher, is a lame narrative built loosely on fact.

The only fun comes from watching the four actors impersonate the Marx Brothers. The Marx Brothers in real life probably didn't act anything like the characters they portrayed in their movies, but that doesn't matter here. As Julius--called Julie--Tom Mula walks like Groucho, even in the living room of the family's apartment. As Adolph, Ross Lehman already has Harpo's wonderfully vacant stare and the ability to frustrate people. When his father asks if he's brought home his paycheck, Adolph alternately nods yes and shakes his head no, until his father is totally confused.

Paul Barrosse plays Leonard, who already has picked up Chico's accent by gambling with the Italian boys in the neighborhood. And David Alan Novak as Zeppo, always the least colorful of the brothers, gives him a comically sullen expression.

Most of the jokes here are groaners. When the landlord demands the rent, the boys devise a scheme for paying him nine dollars by recycling only three one-dollar bills. "You're going to get an honest count," says Julie. "The last honest count I knew was Count Dracula, and he was out for blood." And during one of their routines, Adolph plays a student who asks for the definition of a "yet": "It says here in the newspaper that Mrs. Throckmorton was shot in her apartment last night, and the bullet is in her yet," he says.

The climax of the show is the moment when the brothers, standing in an abandoned Philadelphia theater where they hope to open their own show, start rummaging through an old trunk and pull out their trademark costumes. It's a hokey scene, of course, but again the fun comes from seeing the Marx Brothers materialize before your eyes.

Minnie's Boys ultimately prevails on the strength of these Marx Brothers surrogates. That's not much, but then if belly laughter is built on aggression, a little Marx Brothers should go a long way.

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