Guthrie Theater’s “Cocoanuts” Reheats the Marx Brothers

Guthrie Theater’s “Cocoanuts” Reheats the Marx Brothers

There’s an undeniable energy to the Guthrie Theater’s Cocoanuts — but I was left wondering whether there mightn’t have been a more interesting use of that energy than uncritically trotting the Marx Brothers out.

The first family of vaudeville continue to feel contemporary both because of their anarchic zest and because their antics were well-documented on film, but 1925 — the year The Cocoanuts debuted on Broadway — was 90 years ago, and both society and entertainment were much different than they are now. The Guthrie’s version, a recent adaptation by Mark Bedard, turns The Cocoanuts (one of Irving Berlin’s lesser achievements) into a functional 21st-century stage musical, but this material could have used more than a new coat of paint.

The show’s plot — aptly described by Wikipedia, regarding the 1929 film adaptation, as “almost beside the point” — involves the failing Hotel de Cocoanut, owned by Mr. Hammer (Bedard himself, as Groucho) and operated by Mr. Jamison (Justin Keyes, as Zeppo). The latter dreams of developing a nearby parcel of land into residential estates, with the best reserved for himself and his lover (a winning and precise Cat Brindisi). Complications ensue, due in part to the machinations of a pair of con artists (Brent Hinkley as Harpo and John Tufts as Chico).

The production’s achievement is certainly impressive. Bedard’s aim was to recapture the spirit of the Marx Brothers’ vaudevillian stage act — an act that never completely translated to the screen setting — and the resulting production, directed by David Ivers, does a more than serviceable job of creating a sense of how it might have felt to see the famous comedy team in action.

Bedard, Hinkley, and Tufts all reprise their roles from the 2014 debut production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Having lived with these characters for years, the trio are completely confident in their performances — and Bedard completely dominates the show, for better or for worse.

There’s an element of improv built into the show, and on Friday night, Bedard’s co-stars kept suffering from what my girlfriend called “Jimmy-Fallon-style breaks”: visibly trying to remain in character while cracking up at Bedard’s quips. That’s not something you see very often at the Guthrie, and there’s something to be said for the element of spontaneity this production brings to a theater where the adjoining production — fine though it is — is anything but spontaneous.

Still, Bedard hasn’t entirely shaken the creakiness out of these joints. For all the edits and updates, misogyny is still rampant — and the new jokes are worse than the old ones. With protests for racial justice ongoing in Minneapolis, a dismissive crack about Detroit caused some audience members to audibly gasp — and not from laughter.

This is the kind of production that’s often said to be introducing classic comedy to a new generation. There’s certainly something to be said for bringing professional-level talent to bear on recreating a Marx Brothers Broadway show, but in the end, it seems that this material could have been more true to the Marxs’ subversive spirit — and could have resonated more meaningfully with today’s young audiences — if it had been reinvented, rather than merely reanimated.

Jay Gabler