The Grapes of Mirth

Ensemble's Three Men on a Horse is an unrelenting frontal assault on the funny bone.

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Elizabethans had their golden age--after an unpleasant plague--and a resplendent queen let culture thrive. The halcyon days of our comic theater commenced with the birth of talkies. To ward off Depression blues, Hollywood and Broadway started cross-pollinating each other with larger-than-life screwball comedies replete with wisecracking idiots, featherbrained flibbertigibbets, glorious eccentrics, crackpot egomaniacs, and vivacious vixens.

Leading this twentieth-century madcap merriment and mayhem--which stretched from the late '20s through the TV antics of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca in the 1950s--were Kaufman and Hart, along with Hecht and MacArthur, and dozens of antic funnymen and gagwriters who were weaned on vaudeville, radio, and burlesque.

Ensemble Theatre's Three Men on a Horse comes out of the same fertile pastures as the tales of Damon Runyon, the source for Guys and Dolls. Warm-hearted, small-time gangsters and heart-of-gold molls speak in argot as stylized and as removed from the real world as Oscar Wilde. The play was written by George Abbott--the master director and author of decades of sassy Broadway shows and musicals--and John Cecil Holm, whose career basically began and ended with this phenomenally successful farce. Anyone raised in 1930s Warner Bros. Jimmy Cagney comedies will recognize the breezy, almost cartoon-like style that moves along with the escalating pop of a row of firecrackers.

The play's irresistible premise takes it through a terrific movie and two Broadway musicals. A lovable boob named Erwin--a frantic Dagwood Bumstead type with indigestion, played here by the pipestem-like Larry Nehring--perpetually flaps his nervous hands like a seal, exhibiting cunning comic dexterity. He has the almost supernatural ability to go through a racing form and dope out the winners. Following the '30s sap rulebook, this Dagwood comes equipped with his own Blondie--played by WKYC-TV/Channel 3 weather forecaster Eileen McShea as a perpetually lachrymose pink cloud in frilly aprons. She fulfills her wifely duties, ordering new dresses COD between crying jags. James Reilly, spinning like a top and caterwauling like a bald eagle, is the Mr. Dithers of the occasion; he gives a salty, rambunctious tang to the proceedings.

In place of a battle ax of a mother-in-law is Michael Regnier as a ratlike, superbly needling brother-in-law. His nasal arias of contempt for his sadsack in-law are rendered as exquisite '30s artifacts, taking on the delightful craziness of a vintage Looney Tune.

The metaphysics of farce soon have the hapless Erwin drunk and under the auspices of a group of madcap pinstriped gangsters--all lovable lugs, too busy referring to each other as "pieces of salami" to be dangerous.

Here's where the evening's comic sublimity takes on a neon glow. As the "anything for a buck" Patsy, Cabaret Dada's Jeff Blanchard, in an Oliver Hardy derby and a Dogpatch boutonniere, commences with Jackie Gleason shtick, and with a wave of his cigar, metamorphoses into Milton Berle's shameless grotesqueries. Wave that cigar again, and suddenly he's doing Phil Silvers's Bronx brass. Blanchard here proves himself to be not only a walking kinescope of the golden age of television, but the funniest under-forty actor in Cleveland.

As Patsy's comic concubine Mabel, the always-wonderful Juliette Regnier freshens the evergreen archetype of the good-hearted dizzy dame. Patsy's three baby-faced, crooked fraternity brothers are rendered with vintage lunacy by John Kolibab, John Lynch, and Jim Green.

Director Licia Colombi deserves some kind of special medal for doing her homework and treating the material with period accuracy and crack timing, respecting its social conventions, and giving this Americana antique more than just a refreshing goose with its whimsical penny-ante sets and costumes. She takes the audience on a merry pilgrimage back to 1936 and a rejuvenating dip in an art-deco fountain of youth. Only those who read Nietzsche in its original German could fail to be amused.

Three Men on a Horse, through May 23 at Ensemble Theatre, 3130 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

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