Groucho Marx once described the satirical humor in “Duck Soup,” celebrated by many critics and Marx Brothers fans as the zaniest of the 13 films by the sibling comedians, as “just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”
Indeed, much of the humor that catapulted Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo to stardom had strong Jewish roots in vaudeville and was laced with Yiddish. The Marx Brothers, whose comedy was a mainstay of Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century, were New York-born Jews who never shied from their background.
Those influences are on display in “A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine” — a 1979 musical whose second act resembles a Marx Brothers movie — including one character who refers to himself as “Samovar the Shnorrer” (shnorrer is a Yiddish word for chiseler or sponger).
The show will be presented Jan. 20 to Feb. 5 by the Palo Alto Players, whose all non-Jewish cast for the production faced a few early obstacles in relating to the humor.
“The words that are Yiddish we had to look up,” admitted Patrick Klein, the artistic director of Palo Alto Players and director of the show. “The use of language and also their [Marx Brothers’] training harkens back to the Yiddish theater.”
Mohamed Ismail, who plays the Chico-like character (a dim-witted but crafty con artist) in the show, had an additional task. An Egyptian-American who grew up in Arizona and has what he deemed a “fully West Coast American accent,” Ismail had to adopt the pseudo-Italian accent that Chico always used.
“Maybe the biggest challenge for me was to not do a fully Italian accent, but a Yiddish-English accent with a little Italian sprinkled on top for extra flavor,” he said. “I’m supposed to be impersonating a Yiddish actor impersonating a bad Italian accent.”
Klein, whose Hungarian Jewish grandfather converted to the Episcopal church when he immigrated to the United States before World War II, said most cast members had never seen a Marx Brothers movie before he showed “Duck Soup” at an early rehearsal. Cast members took a while to adjust to the 1930s-style comedy based on sight gags and outrageous puns.
“It probably took our group a week or two to step away from their sarcastic, modern humor to do outwardly silly slapstick, silly things coming out of your mouth,” Klein said. “I think what you’re seeing is universal comedy. If you just listen to what they’re saying, you’re going to laugh.”
Ismail, an electrical engineer when he’s not on the stage, had never seen a Marx Brothers movie before rehearsals started and “I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you the Marx Brothers’ names.” But when the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto ran a Marx Brothers festival, with a different film each week, he spent five weeks going to see “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers,” “Monkey Business,” “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.”
“They have a word play that is very punny, with very simple vocabulary,” he said. “A lot of the humor applies because it’s a very common language. It’s not like Shakespeare, where English has changed a lot. It could have been written now and a lot of the jokes would be exactly the same because it’s not like using weird words. It’s very accessible language.”
The show, which won a pair of Tony Awards in 1980, consists of two very different parts. The first act is basically a revue of songs and a lot of tap dancing, what Klein calls a “love letter to that old Hollywood era.” The second act resembles the wackiness of a Marx Brothers movie.
The Palo Alto Players, who presented a new adaption of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in November, will stage the new show on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and in a matinee on Sundays. Friday, Jan. 20 will be a preview performance; opening night, including a free post-show reception with refreshments and a chance to meet the cast, will occur the next night. Klein and cast members will participate in Q&A sessions after the Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 performances.
Klein, who played the Chico character in the show when he was a theater major at San Jose State two decades ago, said he chose the show for early 2017 because he knew audience members — including millennials who have little awareness of the Marx Brothers — might need a diversion after the presidential election.
“It’s goofy, it’s escapism and I assumed there might be some sadness after the election,” he said. “We are very much playing up the nostalgic angle and trying to let that simplicity of the time resonate through.”
“A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine” runs Jan. 20 through Feb. 5 at Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. $25-$55.