Marx Brothers, Lorraine Hansberry bring Jewish themes to Ashland

South Florida and Greenwich Village: two excellent settings for two plays with strong Jewish themes featured this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.

Long a favorite with Bay Area theatergoers, OSF Ashland offers high-quality, impeccably mounted productions of traditional and new plays, many of them smart, creative interpretations of the Bard’s works and others that are specially commissioned world premieres.

Iris and Sidney (Sofia Jean Gomez and Ron Menzel) in “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”

On tap this year, following last year’s hilarious production of “Animal Crackers,” is “The Cocoanuts,” based on the 1925 Marx Brothers Broadway musical later made into a Hollywood film. This Ashland production is the world premiere of a new adaptation by OSF company member Mark Bedar, who also plays Groucho.

Set during the Florida land boom of the time, the original show featured Groucho as the wily yet impossibly inept manager of a bankrupt hotel, Chico as a two-bit con man, Harpo as his genial sidekick and, in her first Marx Brothers collaboration, Margaret Dumont as the wealthy, clueless matron whom Groucho endlessly pursues. Zeppo, the fourth Marx brother and perennial straight man, appears as the hotel clerk in love with the spunky young heiress, daughter of the Dumont character.

Not the boys’ best work as a whole, “The Cocoanuts” nevertheless boasts audience favorites like the “why a duck” routine and a healthy display of Harpo’s bottomless (and non-discriminatory) appetite. 

While not about Jews per se, a Marx Brothers show is Jewish by definition because the brothers injected so much Jewish humor into all their work.

Dramaturg Julie Dubiner, a recent New York transplant and MOT, says she was “thrilled” to be asked to work on the production. “My grandfather was one of five brothers — we had this thing growing up, that the Marx brothers were us,” she says. (She’s counting Gummo, which nobody does, but why wreck her childhood memory?)

Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) in “The Cocoanuts” photos/jenny graham

The Marx Brothers, Dubiner says, epitomized early 20th-century immigrant Jews: “They weren’t observant, married shikshas, but there’s something inherently Jewish about them. They’re outsiders who will never fit in with Margaret Dumont and her circle, but they always triumph. They undermine everything that’s holy in WASP America.”

That’s clear right from the beginning of “The Cocoanuts,” where the Margaret Dumont character is eager to pry her daughter from the arms of the hotel clerk — he’s just not “our” kind of people, she sniffs. In the end, of course, the (non-Jewish) land developer she favors for her offspring is revealed as the real shyster, while Groucho and company emerge as heroes. Who’s laughing now?

This Ashland show is lots of fun. It’s not as scintillating as last year’s “Animal Crackers,” but I fault the script rather than the adaptation or production. It’s just not as clever a play. In this production there are a few missteps, including Chico’s character coming out with an “oy” and a “shalom” in what I can only hope were unfortunate ad-libs. The Marx Brothers would never have been that obvious. But the actors and above all the marvelous singing made the total package a joy to watch.

Of particular note is this production’s restoration of 25 Irving Berlin songs from the original 1925 show that had been cut from the 1929 film and seemingly lost. The OSF crew, working with the Library of Congress, found the missing material in the library’s archive and, with permission from Berlin’s estate, brought the compositions back to life for this Ashland production. Hearing that music for the first time, and as it was meant to be performed, was simply stupendous.

In contrast to the Marx Brothers, African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry is not a key figure in the Jewish theater canon. That’s why I was surprised that her little-known work, “A Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” has such strong Jewish content.

Best known for her 1957 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry became an activist for civil and lesbian rights and managed to pen just two more plays before dying of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at the age of 34 — three months after “Sidney Brustein” opened on Broadway.

The play is set in Greenwich Village in 1964 and revolves around Brustein, a Jewish intellectual and self-described bohemian who, a la Philip Roth, is proud of having snagged his gentile wife, Iris. Sidney surrounds himself with “interesting people,” including David, the gay Jewish playwright who lives upstairs, and Alton, the black ex–Communist Party member who falls in love with Iris’ sister, a prostitute.

OK, so we’ve got all the marginal stereotypes here, in one New York apartment. There’s also another sister, this one the voice of anti-Semitism. In her first appearance on stage, she immediately gets into it with Sidney, who is well into his cups. Sneering, she says to Iris, “I thought you said Jews didn’t drink,” to which Sidney retorts, “I’m assimilated.”

There are plenty of similar exchanges that highlight Sidney’s strong Jewish roots. But deeper than that is how Hansberry captured in this character the against-all-odds idealism and commitment to social justice of a certain mid-century Jewish man — along with simmering rage at the centuries of victimhood. When Sidney talks about “strapping on the sword of the Maccabees” to take on “the evils of our time,” he’s flexing a Jewish muscle encouraged by the new state of Israel, although he doesn’t say as much.

This Ashland production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is spectacular. The acting is spot-on, and the narrative soars. In particular, Ron Menzel, the actor playing Sidney, conveys the charisma and the pathos of his character with skillful intelligence. Even though some of his speeches are overlong and preachy, that’s the early ’60s talking, when anything seemed possible and when, as Sidney puts it, “the world is about to crack open.”

Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” through July 3. “The Cocoanuts” through Nov. 2.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at