Happy Days Are Here Again 

threemenhorsemag.jpg
Three Men on A Horse
Written by John Cecil Holm and George Abbott
Directed by Scott Alan Evans

Place your bets ladies and gentlemen. Bookies at the opening of this TACT/The Actors Company Theatre production of John Cecil Holm and George Abbott's Three Men on A Horse (at the Beckett Theatre through April 23) weave their way through the audience with gambling slips and a very interactive, vaudevillian flair. Lucky spectators who play their horses (multi-colored cutout puppets) right get a $100 cash prize at intermission, "fresh off the presses... this morning."

Otherwise a naturalistic post-Prohibition, Depression-era period piece with an impenetrable fourth wall, this three-act comedy maintains a caricatured, cartoonish, screwball style with a lot of childish dialogue and many overwhelmingly sappy moments. Erwin Trowbridge (Geoffrey Malloy) is a meek, dopey greeting card writer from a New Jersey proto-Levittown who blurts out sentimental Mother's Day greetings in perfect verse at odd intervals. On the bus ride home from work, he guesses the winners of horse races "to pass the time." It's only a hobby and he never plays for money because he has foresight enough to know that would "spoil it all," even though he has never guessed wrong. After an expository squabble, characteristic of the drawing room drama, Erwin finds himself downing drinks at a hotel bar, where three down-on-their-luck gamblers (Gregory Salata, Don Borroughs, Jeffrey C. Hawkins) discover his uncanny abilities.

Aside from the inventive opening, this production, directed by Scott Alan Evans, doesn't exactly take many risks. Indeed, the choice to stage the play, perhaps appropriately timed given the current economic atmosphere, is far from a risk in itself. TACT might be a theatre company "dedicated to presenting neglected or rarely produced plays of literary merit," but Three Men on a Horse has been on stage for over 1,000 performances during four different revivals since its 1935 premiere, and adapted for the screen. Though it's rather long and somewhat predictable, this production never grows tiresome because of the remarkably talented cast. Gregory Salata gives an incredibly compelling, animated performance as Patsy, channeling gangsters similar to those from Robert Zemeckis 1988 cartoon composite, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. James Martaugh as Mr. Carver just about steals the show in the third act with his physical humor, recalling Michael Richards in his prime.

The play itself is comparably goofy, a bit cornier, super sentimental, and completely family-friendly. A more interesting decision would have been to set the run to coincide with Mother's Day. But for the rest of us, unemployed or otherwise, it makes for some easy-going, breezy laughs following an afternoon at a favorite speakeasy-styled watering hole. And since Off Track Betting closed their doors back in December, this might also be the closest most New Yorkers who don't spend their days at the track will get to playing the ponies.

(photo credit: Stephen Kunken)

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