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With a Name Like .

December 4, 2008 By:
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From left, the stars of "Schmucks": Erik Jensen as Lenny Bruce; Ron Crawford as Groucho Marx; Caitlin Clouthier as waitress Mary; and Ian Alda as comic Joe Klein. Photo by Jim Roese

Wait, a minute, who you calling ...

"Schmucks"? Nothing personal, just playful, muses Roy Smiles.

He should know: Reviews have smiled down on the playwright's "Schmucks" since its debut in 1992 in London; it is about to receive a sweet 16 of an anniversary with a premiere staging here, at the Wilma Theater, opening this coming Wednesday after a series of previews.

The priapically-pointed play passes judgment on two of America's legendary comedians: Lenny Bruce, whose pot and potty mouth were famous and infamous among the literati and, literally, despised by the more-puritanical; and Groucho Marx, who left his -- as well as his brothers' -- marks on generations with movies and the TV titan's "You Bet Your Life."

You bet your life, smiles Smiles, that he meant nothing shameful by using the big S word that means, to him, the supermen of schmoes. Oh, no, no penis enmity implied, he insists, and he didn't run into problems with the Yiddish policemen's union -- or Michael Chabon for that matter. "To us in England, it just means 'the fool.' "

Fool's gold -- or the real thing for the non-Jewish erstwhile stand-up comic, whose plays have stood out among the British canons for years and whose "Ying Tong -- a Walk With the Goons" ran last year at the Wilma.

"I've always enjoyed Jewish styles of comedy and was a big admirer of Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis as a kid, and, of course, the Marx Brothers -- as well as Mad magazine," he says.

Mad about the boy: That was Smiles' take on Bruce, who swore on a book of the seven dirtiest words, long before the late George Carlin, to rattle the rabble out of society, not giving a shot of care whom he alienated.

And then there was the Marxist society that was Groucho's, whose secret word of a manic manifesto beguiled audiences, with his run of puns and slapstick shtick that surfaced in movies, TV and on stage (including Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre).

Lenny and Groucho, Together -- for the First Time!

Placing them imaginarily amid the company of a mediocre comic and a one-too-many-served waffle of a waitress in a diner the night of New York's infamous 1965 blackout, "Schmucks" sports black comedy and white lies that lay at the base of the legendary late Bruce and Marx.

"Lenny Bruce is part of my psychology," claims the playwright of the comic fantasy he has spun, and who used to spin Bruce albums on his hi-fi to high-five life after "doing bad gigs."

"I never really felt attached to the English style of humor," says Smiles, as a means of explanation of his predilection for America's comic punksters.

As for his feel for Bruce, Marx -- and Mel Brooks and Mort Sahl -- the 42-year-old concedes: "I'm a Jewish wannabe."

And he wants to be their avatar in a way. "I love Jewish humor's self-deprecating wit and outsider's viewpoint, so much a persecution thing."

Is it really a surprise he also enjoys the Woodman -- Woody Allen's humor? As for "Schmucks," the London interloper concedes, "I'm obsessed with Yiddish phrases; they just sound funny."

But would this play have been as attention-drawing if it were titled "Schmegeggy"? It doesn't take a great pair of putts to make a golfer know he's going for the green; but it took these two characters in "Schmucks" to ensure a hit for Smiles, who seems to have an aptitude of 'tude for loser-sounding titles among his winners: "Idiot's Waltz," "Sick Dictators," "Year of the Rat" and "Lunatic's Tango," among a tangle of other acclaimed plays.

"I like people to look at life in a different way," he explains.

Look at it this way: With a name like "Schmucks," you know it has to be good.

Not that everyone thought it could pass the laugh test. "I lived in Tel Aviv in 2000," with his then-girlfriend, recalls Smiles, and his work was performed there.

But when it came to "Schmucks," they acted like ... Israelis. "They thought the sense of humor was too American," says the Londoner.

"You can't win."

How can you lose with a surname the heavens have smiled on? "Well, it doesn't always work; sometimes, you're not taken as seriously," says Smiles.

"Then again, if I write a drama, I could go by Roy Grim."

Dark reminder that no matter what, playwrights depend on audiences, and Smiles is ever hopeful that the Wilma will sell out with best-wishers as it did for him last year.

"I am hoping," he says, tongue ever so in chic, "that the theater will be filled with 'Schmucks.' "

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