At the beginning of Groucho Returns, actor Frank Ferrante introduces himself to the audience as a former painfully shy kid who learned how to open up to the world by watching A Day at the Races. As he slathers black greasepaint on his eyebrows and upper lip, Ferrante explains that Groucho Marx provided him with a template for confidence, a persona he could adopt to relate to the world. Speaking as someone who fell in love with the Marx brothers as an awkward teen, I can certainly attest to the power of Groucho as a role model: When you’re Groucho, the whole world is your straight man and you’re the spinning funnel of gleeful chaos at the middle of everything.
Ferrante grabbed hold of Groucho and never let go; Groucho’s son, Arthur, hired him out of college to star as his father in a biographical revue. Ferrante has been playing Groucho ever since, for three decades now. And for the third summer in a row, he’s come to ACT Theatre with Groucho Returns, a cabaret-style one-man show starring Ferrante doing his time-tested Groucho impersonation.
The show follows three threads. First, Ferrante relates Groucho’s life in a series of anecdotes—the way his mother decimated his self-esteem to coax him on to fame and fortune, the way the Marx Brothers got their nicknames, and so on. Second, Ferrante performs a greatest-hits medley of Groucho songs (“Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”) and routines from Marx Brothers movies. Third, Ferrante riffs with the audience in character as Groucho; he keeps it witty and light, but if interactive theater gives you hives, you’ll want to keep far away from this show.
As impersonations, the anecdotes and the routines are very successful. Ferrante obviously knows his stuff; he’s got to be the world’s foremost expert on Marx’s mannerisms. But the whole thing about Groucho is that he’s nobody without someone—a Marx Brother, a self-important goon, a determinedly plain schoolteacher on You Bet Your Life—to bounce off of. And it takes a while to adjust to seeing Groucho’s gestures (especially the way he juts the tip of his tongue out of his mouth when he’s feeling particularly cheeky) in the flesh a few feet from your face when you’re used to seeing them on a movie screen. Though Groucho honed his craft on the vaudeville stage, his film mannerisms don’t quite read the same way when brought back to the theater. They’re a little creepier.
When Ferrante has someone to react to, he’s at his best. Local pianist Mark Rabe is the straight man and the musical accompaniment, and he acquits himself capably. Ferrante tosses barbs Rabe’s way—somehow, nothing sounds more insulting than someone with a Groucho Marx voice calling you “world-famous”—and Rabe simply absorbs them with a slump-shouldered dignity.
The liveliest bits come when Ferrante is left to his own devices with the audience. It’s a fairly simple working-the-room framework: Someone who has the misfortune of momentarily crossing his arms when Ferrante notices him is lampooned for the next 90 minutes as a bitter person who’s mentally checked out. Ferrante praises another man for “wearing your best shorts to the show.” He hit on a woman named Barbara relentlessly. On the night I attended, the room was mostly made up of gray-haired couples (some of whom, we discovered, had been married for 50 or 60 years) and a handful of sweet, nerdy preteen boys—both groups howled as Ferrante mocked the “motley crew” who came out to see him in this “dungeon in Seattle, of all places.” The more Ferrante worked the room, the funnier he got.
(Full disclosure: In nearly a decade reviewing plays for The Stranger, I was involved in audience participation for the first time at Groucho Returns. Ferrante asked about my notebook, and I said I was reviewing the play for The Stranger. He recoiled in what seemed like genuine fear, chastised me for coming on preview night—though the theater had given me permission to attend—and praised one of the boys in attendance for having “more culture in him than an entire issue of The Stranger.” He asked me the difference between critics and reviewers—“I presume critics make more money,” I answered—and he told me that the Seattle Weekly loved his show last year. As someone who’s lived in fear of audience participation his whole life, it wasn’t as bad as I feared.)
Groucho Returns probably only works for hardcore Marx Brothers fans, and even then it’s not in itself a wholly satisfying experience. I laughed a fair amount and I appreciated Ferrante’s spot-on impersonation, but the evening left me with a bone-deep desire to watch some Marx Brothers movies to scratch the itch that all the Groucho talk inspired in me. Turns out, when you’re in the mood for Groucho’s special mix of wit and low culture and human cartoonishness, you can accept no substitutes.