If You Like Damon Runyon, You’ll Love the New Play “Three Wise Guys”

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Three Wise Guys

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The legendary musical hit Guys and Dolls, with all of its marvelous characters, is based on the stories of Damon Runyon. The iconic newspaperman and short story writer lived in, and wrote about, a world populated with gangsters, pimps. hookers, forgers, bank robbers, newspapermen, bartenders, bookies, Wall Street frauds, crooked politicians and a minister or two. He loaded his stories with these characters into his fabled “Runyonesque” world. They were, and remain, memorable, especially all the gangsters such as Big Julie and Nathan Detroit.

Two of Runyon’s other top stories were “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” and “The Three Wise Guys.” They have been turned into an Off – Broadway play, Three Wise Guys, that opened last night, and it is just wonderful, a delicious romp through the mob underworld, speakeasies and the Long Island mansions of the wealthy in the Depression era, all at the same time.

The utterly charming play, at the Beckett Theater on Theater Row, W. 42d. Street, in New York, starts in a perfect Runyonesque way in a Speakeasy. Three lower level gangsters, Dancing Dan, Blondy Johnson and the Dutchman, are trying to put together a scheme to get a car and drive out to Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve. Dancing Dan is working as a Santa that night. A transplanted British servant, Merton, who works for the fabulously wealthy Mrs. Albright on Long Island, tells Dancing Dan he need a Santa, and fast, to host the filthy rich Mrs. Albright’s Christmas Party for underprivileged boys. Dan, beard already on his face, agrees to play jolly old St. Nick for the kids.

The three lovable hoods roar out of town in Merton’s car, headed for Long Island, speeding to get to the Albright party on time. There, to their collective horror, they run into Heinie Schmitz, head of an underworld family, who, gun in hand, has been looking for Dancing Dan for weeks and now, accidentally, has found him.

He can’t eliminate the beloved Santa, though, because there are kids around and because Mrs. Albright, who goes for the dangerous type, likes Heine and tells him that with her money she might be able to get him elected Governor. Hey, that’s better than the docks, right? So Dancing Dan lives. But wait. The Dutchman tells them they have to leave Long Island to get to Pennsylvania. Off they go, headed for a Christmas eve they will never forget.

The play is a tasty cup of hot chocolate with whip cream on top for these blistering cold winter days.

Director Scott Allan Evans has done a superb job. He has hoods running this way and that and characters hanging out of second floor windows, their sudden lofty appearances startling everybody. The play has everything one could want on the stage. There is the enchanting underworld story and the Runyon characters and more laughs than there are on the streets of Chicago.

Projection designer Dan Scully opens the show with huge dark shadows behind a bed sheet staging a jewelry store robbery. It is wildly inventive. Later, he has safes exploding like they do in cartoons, all to the delight of the audience.

The acting in Three Wise Guys is terrific. The actors play their characters perfectly. Joel Jones, Karl Kenzler, Jeffrey C. Hawkins are mesmerizing as the three low level hoods and so is Ron McClary as Myrton and John Plumpis as Heine. My favorite is Dana Smith-Croll as Mrs. Albright, whose money, if put in one pile, would be taller than the Empire State building. At first, she is a high-toned society swell, but after a few scenes dear old Mrs. Albright becomes a tough talking, life threatening sweetheart who must have emerged from some sordid speakeasy herself to snare Mr. Albright and his wallet. She is adorable.

The play, written by director Evans and Jeffrey Couchman, based on Runyon’s stories, offers a lot of history of crime in America in the 1930s amid scary scenes and lots of chuckles. There are the various criminal families, the police, heists, attempted murder, the rich loving the poor and everybody, hands on their cheeks in fear, shaking at the presence of the mob characters in the story. There is the history of the rich, not hurt anywhere as badly as the poor and working class in the Depression, the highway patrol cops, highway history and auto history. Runyon got all of this into just two short stories and Evans and Couchman got it into just one play with hundreds of belly laughs.

Added to all of that, the theater program even has a gangster quiz for members of the audience to take, plus a nice, colorful biography of Damon Runyon.

Finally, it is a great gangster story. We all love gangsters on screen and in television, from the Corleones of The Godfather to Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde and the Sopranos. We loathe what they do but enjoy watching them do it.

Three Wise Guys is a lot of fun. Go see it. This is an offer you cannot refuse.

PRODUCTION: The show is produced by The Actors Company Theater. Sets: Jason Ardizzone-West, Costumes: David Toser, Lighting: Mary Louise Geiger, Sound: Bart Fasbender, Original Music: Joseph Trapanese, Projection Design: Dan Scully. The play is directed by Scott Allan Evans. It runs through April 14.

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