Three Men on a Horse
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
March 19, 2011
There’s more than horseplay to Three Men on a Horse, John Cecil Holm and George Abbott’s zany 1935 comedy about a shy writer turned unlikely race track shark. As TACT’s lively if occasionally strained production shows, the shadow of hard times is never far from the fun. This is a comedy, after all, where the gambler’s moll jokes she gets drunk faster because she “hasn’t had so much to eat in the past coupla days.” The Depression looms large, even as the play’s endearing wheeler-dealers hope for happy days to be here again.
Three Men on a Horse debuted on Broadway in 1935, when the Depression was at its height. As delineated in the thorough program notes, the unemployment rate was at a staggering 20%. No wonder horse racing was America’s second most popular sport—betting at the track almost had better odds that getting a job. All this background helps make sense of the play’s gleefully absurd plot, which rolls into motion when Erwin, a meek man who makes his living writing verses for greeting cards, discovers he can predict (or “dope”) winning horses while killing time on his daily bus commute between Ozone Park and Manhattan. Only he’d never actually place a bet, as that would take all the fun out of his hobby (and possibly jinx his streak). Then one day Erwin stumbles upon three down-on-their luck gamblers while playing hooky in a hotel bar. When they learn about his “hobby,” they plan to use him to their advantage, whether Erwin likes it or not. But will Erwin’s winning streak hold until the last race?
Director Scott Alan Evans elicits finely tuned comic performances from his talented cast. Geoffrey Molloy makes an endearingly downtrodden—yet never cloying—Erwin, whose gentle goodwill trumps all obstacles. With her sharp comic timing and winsome vulnerability, Julianna Zinkel shines as Mabel, the ditzy gambler’s girlfriend with a voice like Miss Adelaide and a heart bigger than Ozone Park. Gregory Salata finds the self-doubt beneath the swagger of Patsy, the chief gambler, while Don Burroughs and Jeffrey C. Hawkins give pitch-perfect performances as his bumbling henchmen. Ron McClary’s wise, world-weary bartender, Harry, could have come straight from a 1930s movie, as could James Murtaugh’s delightfully agitated Mr. Carver, Erwin’s pinchpenny boss. Becky Baumwoll, Scott Schafer, and Kristen Vaphides also deliver sharply defined character work in the roles of Erwin’s wife, brother-in-law, and hotel maid, respectively. There’s some wonderfully silly ensemble work, as when the tough-talking gamblers abruptly pantomime a crowded bus in their hotel room to inspire Erwin. Only a few moments feel forced (particularly overdone double entendres in the first act). As of previews, some of the timing was still a bit tepid for a “screwball” comedy. Still, this is sure to improve over the run.
The physical production is also well done. Martha Hally’s costume design expertly evokes each character’s class and aspirations—from Patsy’s colorfully loud neckties to the brave ruffles on Mabel’s only dress. Sound designer Daryl Bornstein and composer Joseph Trapanese have assembled period songs and original music that elegantly help the scene transitions as well as underscore mood. With clever drop curtains and moving units, set designer Brett J. Banakis creates a flexible set that shifts readily between the play’s two contrasting worlds—Erwin’s Ozone Park house and the sleazy Lavillere Hotel—even if Erwin’s house feels strangely incomplete (and it’s odd that one of the walls is a drop curtain).
With their longing for security in a world turned upside down, the Great Depression schemers and dreamers of Three Men on a Horse don’t seem all that different from us today. Holm and Abbott’s comedy is silly, but as TACT’s production proves, it’s also surprisingly of the moment.