The National Actors Theatre production of "Three Men on a Horse" is really awful, but I'm afraid you can't say so quite that bluntly.
To begin with, you have to be touched by the fact that Tony Randall has invited his old friend and colleague Jack Klugman to appear with him in this 1935 comedy, despite the fact that Klugman, who survived a bout with throat cancer, can barely speak. He is subtly amplified, but it is still uncomfortable to listen to him strain to speak.
Secondly, you're not supposed to notice that both Randall and Klugman are too old for their roles, though Klugman is more plausible as a man whose whole life is devoted to gambling than Randall is as a nervous young husband, a Caspar Milquetoast who writes greeting card verse but has an uncanny knack for picking horses.
Both are physically nimble, but what should simply be sprightly leaps across beds, people, etc., in this context seem impressive feats, which distract from the lightness of the piece.
The piece itself is hardly one of the great American comedies. "Room Service," written a few years later, is much funnier. So are the plays of Kaufman and Hart.
What probably gave the original production its pizzazz was George Abbott's direction, which was of a style that could not be less fashionable today. He was famous for telling actors, "Take three steps downstage, look directly toward the audience, wait one beat and say the line." He was apparently unconcerned about "motivation." What gave his style of direction credibility was that it worked.
This cannot be said for John Tillinger, who directed this production, presumably with an eye only for excess. This is clear from the beginning. Before the curtain goes up and between scenes, a singer and pianist in the orchestra pit give us old songs. The singer, Nora Mae Lyng, apparently a student of the inimitable Darleen Edwards, pushes every song, which is jarring rather than diverting.
This is also true of much of the acting, especially Ellen Greene, who turns Klugman's girlfriend into a grotesque. There is creditable work by Joey Faye, John Franklyn-Robbins, Ralph Williams and Jerry Stiller, but the whole evening is so heavy-handed the slight play is suffocated.
Say it for star power, and don't bet on it, but it seems ironically possible that Tony Randall's National Actors Theater, now concluding its second season, could have its biggest hit to date with its staging of John Cecil Holm and George Abbott's rickety, awful and old "Three Men on a Horse," which opened at the Lyceum Theater last night.
Not that the play is particularly good - it certainly isn't. Not that the production or even the acting are particularly good - they certainly aren't. But the evening has a particular extraterrestrial magic.
For it happily reunites the American stage's oddest but most adored odd couple - Jack Klugman, coming back from serious surgery, yet, and Randall himself. Unfortunately, the play is so slight, so silly, that one wonders how it has lasted so long - it was, after all, first produced in 1935.
I didn't see it then, but on its first major Broadway revival in 1969 at this very same Lyceum Theater, still then directed by Abbott himself and with Sam Levene, also held over from the 1935 staging, joined by the likes of Jack Gilford, Paul Ford, Hal Linden and Dorothy Loudon, it nevertheless struck me as excessively formulaic stuff. Baby formulaic, at that.
The story revolves around a fussily honorable nerd, Erwin (Randall), whose profession is writing doggerel for greeting cards, and who lives in suburbia with his wife, Audrey (Julie Haggerty). But hubby as a hobby dopes out horse-race winners on his daily commute from his New Jersey home to his Manhattan office.
He is always right - infallible. Indeed had he been a betting man, he could have made a fortune. But Erwin is not that kind of a boy - and he maintains his amateur status. Until one day in a bar he meets Patsy (Klugman), a professional gambler of passingly indifferent success, his two-bit partners, Charlie (Jerry Stiller) and Frankie (Zane Lasky) and Patsy's cheerfully blowzy ex-Follies girlfriend, Mabel (Ellen Greene).
So what happens? What do you think happens? Of course, that's what does happen, the divertissement only being modestly diverted by a brief but hallmarked solo act from the publisher of Erwin's greeting cards, a Mr. Carver (John Franklyn-Robbins).
The show is drearily designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg and Ann Hould-Ward, while even the usually admirable John Tillinger's direction just doesn't pull out the right stuff here. It possessed nothing like Abbott's own drilled and punchy authority of yesteryear, and if a play like this has to be done at all, it has to be done awe-inspiringly well.
Tillinger's one success was with his one innovation - introducing a lounge-lizard piano player (David Geist) and a floozie-chanteuse (Nora Mae Lyng) to introduce each scene with the camp rendering of an appropriate song.
The actors prove all moderately if coarsely effective (with only the delectable Greene and the over-the-toply blustering Franklyn-Robbins offering anything much more). But what we had come to see was Randall and Klugman, - two of our most brilliant and most justifiably loved comedians - together again.
No matter that although they are indeed stage stars, their classic partnership was really a TV pairing. No matter that they are both miscast - not least in that they are playing roles for which they are, to put it gently, two or three decades too old. No matter, even, that the classic oddity of their characteristics are not actually displayed.
The overriding fact is that "Felix and Oscar" are back in town, back together again, and it would be either a churl or some idiot totally unaware of the particular joys of late-night television on the obscurer channels, who did not find a song rising somewhere in his cold heart.
In its two seasons on Broadway, the National Actors Theater has often seemed like the greenest of expansion teams. Can anyone here play this game? Among the victims were Feydeau and Chekhov (although Shaw fared better with "St. Joan"). But nothing can equal "Three Men on a Horse," which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater with a reunion of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, television's "Odd Couple." This time, Mr. Randall's company is defeated by a double burden of miscasting and maladroit acting. The way to revive "Three Men on a Horse" would be to rejuvenate it with an ensemble of young actors and clowns. Instead, the approach is the opposite: a geriatric production.
Since its Broadway premiere in 1935, the John Cecil Holm-George Abbott comedy has proved to be a durable staple and has also inspired two musicals. After the troupe's experience with classics, this lightheaded farce should have been the easy one. In John Tillinger's production, however, the show is as dim and contrived a play as could be imagined. It is far less viable than "The Show-Off," the 1924 George Kelly comedy presented this season at the Roundabout Theater Company.
Mr. Tillinger, usually a fine director, has steered the play right into an iceberg. The staging is lifeless, with slow, split-minute timing (and flimsy scenery). Admittedly, certain casting choices must have been beyond the director's control. Mr. Randall plays the youthful hero, Erwin Trowbridge, a greeting-card poet turned wildly successful race track tout, and Mr. Klugman is a tough-talking gambler who takes advantage of Erwin's innocence and his intuitive betting system.
Both actors are more than twice too old for their roles. If they really wanted to share a stage again, they could have discreetly moved along the Neil Simon road and played the aged vaudevillians in "The Sunshine Boys" or they could have assumed supporting roles in "Three Men on a Horse." In an act of histrionic hubris, Mr. Randall plays a timid soul such as might have been portrayed 50 years ago by James Stewart (or perhaps by Mr. Randall himself) and today by Matthew Broderick.
As Erwin, the actor is married to Julie Hagerty and at one point he is aroused by the dancing of the gambler's chorus girlfriend (Ellen Greene). In his scenes with both actresses, particularly those in which he kisses Ms. Hagerty and dandles this tall actress on his knee, Mr. Randall seems more a doting grandfather than an affectionate husband.
His performance reminded me of the time that Dame Judith Anderson, then in her 70's, played Hamlet at Carnegie Hall, and Hamlet lost. Wearing corny clothes and a squashed hat (even in bed), Mr. Randall looks like a Red Skelton hayseed, and he treads heavily on his punch lines.
Mr. Klugman is another, sadder case. Because of an operation on his larynx, he is vocally impaired. Remembering his accomplishments on stage and as television's Quincy, one feels sympathetic. In his prime, he would have been a likely candidate to play this Runyonesque part, created on Broadway by Sam Levene (who also played it in the film and in revivals). It can be said about Mr. Klugman's performance that he is sprier than expected. But there is something embarrassing about seeing him and his co-star cavort like characters from "Cocoon."
The other actors suffer varying degrees of diminishment, although John Franklyn-Robbins's late arrival as Erwin's apoplectic boss has the right note of bluster. Among the lost is Ms. Greene, a talented musical actress, who regresses into self-caricature. To distract the audience, Mr. Tillinger has added musical interludes. Between scenes, a singer and a pianist (Nora Mae Lyng and David Geist) offer songs from a position in the narrow orchestra pit. Ms. Lyng sings merrily, even when the song is as inappropriate as "Happy Days Are Here Again."
As a follow-up to "St. Joan," the National Actors Theater's most ambitious and successful production since the company bowed last season, the troupe has down-scaled its aspirations and settled on a 1930s Runyonesque comedy, "Three Men on a Horse."
Although the horse certainly seems to be of the war variety, Tony Randall & Company present a workmanlike production that continues NAT's steady improvement over its first disappointing season.
Steady improvement, but unspectacular; NAT has yet to present a revival that rethinks or reshapes an old work into something inspired.
Although an early scene with Julie Hagerty suggests that a "Guys and Dolls" comic-book romp might be coming, the style never takes hold. Instead, the John Cecil Holm/George Abbott comedy is served straight up, competently but creakily.
And NAT's casting glitches are once again on display: Randall, NAT's artistic director and manic force, squeezes himself into a lead role that calls for an actor decades his junior.
Had he not teamed himself with old TV partner Jack Klugman, Randall's stint could be interpreted as ego-driven. But the impression left by "Horse" is more sentiment than hubris, and audience reaction attests to Randall's marketing skills if nothing else.
The teaming is particularly emotional given Klugman's recent bout with throat cancer, the malady having left him with a guttural, whispery voice that requires special amplification. The effect is disconcerting, at least initially, but Klugman settles so easily into the role of a gambling tough that the audience welcomes him without hesitation.
The near-farcical plot has Randall's timid Erwin Trowbridge, erstwhile writer of sugary verse with an untapped talent for picking the ponies, falling in with the Runyon types.
Director John Tillinger keeps things popping at a sprightly pace, and the best of the cast plays this like the old pros they are. Klugman, Jerry Stiller and Joey Faye were born for roles like these, and Ellen Greene hits just the right squeals as a doll of the Vivian Blaine school. Hagerty is OK as Trowbridge's loopy wife.
A few weak links in the cast -- notably John Franklyn-Robbins and Ralph Williams for their silent movie gestures as the martinet boss and conniving brother-in-law, respectively -- point to the somewhat schizoid style, or styles, of the production.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's art deco sets certainly look higher-budget than most previous NAT productions, but, although attractive, the pastel tones seem a bit off for the period. Still, her hotel bar gets the feel, as do Ann Hould-Ward's costumes.