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A CurtainUp Review

How do people work for a living? — The Dutchman
wise guys
From left to right: Jeffrey C. Hawkins as Dancing Dan, Karl Kenzler as Blondy Swansonand Joel Jones as The Dutchman.
For a quarter of a century, TACT has brought its own mix of enthusiasm and professionalism to seldom performed works from the past, and this year, its 25th anniversary season, is its last. But if the company has to go, it's good to see it heading out on top— and there are worse shows to wrap up a vital part of the New York theater scene than the new play Three Wise Guys, a pleasant and funny tribute to the era of speakeasies, bootleggers, guys and dolls.

Scott Alan Evans and Jeffrey Couchman have based Three Wise Guys on two stories by Damon Runyon, tells the story of three friends,usually on the wrong side of the law, during the era of Prohibition: Blondy Swanson (Karl Kenzler), a melancholy bootlegger, The Dutchman (Joel Jones), a worn-down safecracker on the edge of retirement, and Dancing Dan (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), a charming young man with an easy grace and an eye for women (often already spoken for). It's Christmas time, and all three men are ready for a change, if they can only find the money they need to make it happen.

A well-timed encounter with a down-on-his-luck butler (Ron McClary) working for a wealthy socialite in Long Island (Dana Smith-Croll), gives the friends a chance to make some money working as Santa and his elves (it's a long story), get a car, and skip town before a vengeful Heine Schmitz (John Plumpis) can find Dan, who has been spending too much time with Muriel O' Neill (Victoria Mack), and settle their account. . .permanently. Obviously nothing works out as planned, and much of the rest of the play is about a series of Plan Bs...and the resulting humor.

Nothing about any of this is particularly new or surprising, but arguably that predictability is one of the production's greatest strengths. There's something deeply comforting about watching a show which has threats, but never uncontrollable ones; tension, but never unbearably so, and heroes and villains, but never painted so strongly one way or the other as to break the relaxed feel of the play. Playwrights Scott Alan Evans (who also directs) & Jeffrey Couchman understand their source material and its roots, and they nail the feel of a world where crime was ubiquitous and yet somehow not wholly contemptuous.

If I were talking about the real world, of course, I'd be terribly oversimplifying an often horrifying era of misogyny and violence. 1930s era mobsters, after all, were hardened criminals, not lovable dancers and singers. But this isn't that world; it's the world of Guys and Dolls, where miscreants are more misunderstood than monstrous. In that environment, the actors do a wonderful job in conveying a real sense of warmth through their portrayals. These are likeable people—even Schmitz isn't entirely irredeemable—and the fact we know everything is going to work out okay for them doesn't diminish our enjoyment in watching the journey.

A steady diet of this kind of fare probably wouldn't sustain a theater lover forever. At some point drama has to provide more surprises, and an occasional gesture towards realism wouldn't hurt in that regard, along with more careful attention to steadying accents which drift slightly here and there. But these are churlish nitpicks for a show which knows exactly what it wants to do and delivers.

I'm sorry to see TACT closing its doors; whatever the principals say about the bright future for other companies carrying on its tradition of reviving neglected work, I'm not sure we can afford to lose more of the TACTS and the Pearls from the theater scene. But at least it knows how to dismount gracefully, and Three Wise Guys is just that — a graceful, funny, and warm production. If you have interest in a production which comforts as much as it amuses, this is a sure bet.

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Three Wise Guys
Play by Scott Alan Evans and Jeffrey Couchman based on the stories "Dancing Dan’s Christmas" and "The Three Wise Guys" by Damon Runyon
Directed by Scott Alan Evans
Cast: Jeffrey C. Hawkins (Dancing Dan), Joel Jones (The Dutchman), Karl Kenzler (Blondy Swanson), Victoria Mack (Miss Clarabelle Cobb, Muriel O’Neill), Ron McClary (Good Time Charlie, Myrton, Doc Kelton), John Plumpis (Heine Schmitz, Jasper, Ambersham, Cop), Dana Smith-Croll (Gammer O’Neill, Mrs. Elizabeth Albright)
Set Design: Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design: Bart Fasbender
Original Music: Joseph Trapanese Running time: Ninety minutes
The Beckett, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St., (212) 645-8228
From 2/28/18; opening 3/11/18; closing 4/14/18
Tues. - Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. @ 2 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Tickets: $65
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on March 8th press performance

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