There's no company in New York like TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) for reviving older and old-fashioned plays and breathing new life into them with solid and professional productions. TACT has been a resident company of Theatre Row for several years now, and I've never been disappointed by any of their shows I've seen. Now, like many other theatre companies in the past several years, they're reviving one of the hits from the previous American Depression-era, to examine their relevance to our current financial troubles.
This play is Three Men on a Horse, by John Cecil Holm and George Abbott, a frothy and well-structured comedy about those who bet on horse racing. In it, Erwin Trowbridge, a mild-mannered greeting card poet, has a hobby of studying racing forms and picking the winners- although he never plays. When, due to a misunderstanding, this comes out to his nervous wife Audrey (Becky Baumwoll) and her obnoxious brother Clarence (Scott Schafer), they discover he could have made a fortune over the past year... and when it turns out that Audrey has been spending over their limit for some new dresses, Erwin goes into a tailspin, leaving their idyllic house in Ozone Heights, NJ and instead of going to work (despite his big Mother's Day deadline), ends up in a hotel bar tended by Harry (Ron McClary), where he happens to run into Patsy (Gregory Salata), and his colleagues Charlie (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) and Frankie (Don Burroughs), who have been making a terrible living betting badly on horses. Erwin innocently displays his talent, gaining him their respect, if not outright reverence. Though Erwin insists he never bets himself, they realize they can equivocate and use him as a consultant... which leads to a couple more entertaining acts full of fish-out-of-water farcical confusion.
Though the gang at first seems to be composed of innocuous comic Damon Runyon types, the play, deftly directed by Scott Alan Evans, doesn't shy away from the darker side of their lives, and neither do the actors. All the actors are perfect in their roles, and are invested in their characters to the hilt, making the high stakes really believable. Molloy is a hit as the wimpy Erwin, his adorable credulousness propelling the play. Also of especial note, Salata as the gregariously intimidating Patsy, the rubber-faced Burroughs as Frankie, and Hawkins as their handsome straight man, as well as a genius turn by Julianna Zinkel, who plays Mabel, Patsy's chorus girl fiancée, with a perfect mix of ditz, innocent sexpot, and a quiet longing for a more settled life where she won't have to pawn her jewelry when the ponies don't win. James Murtaugh makes the most of his short Act 3 scenes as Erwin's boss, his riotous nervous tics at times almost threatening to overwhelm the character.
The only leftover fustiness of the show is the 3-act structure. The trend in audience appreciation these days has been toward shorter plays, and having two intermissions seems like a bit much- especially for this play, which has essentially two locations, it might have been a good idea to split act II and append a scene each to acts I and III to streamline the evening.
An amusing pre-show with a puppet horse race (audience members were provided with racing forms filled with inside jokes for those who are familiar with TACT's recent work), was a lovely addition.
As with TACT's previous work, the sets and costumes are of unusually high quality. Brett J. Banakis captures both suburban Jersey and a seedy horse-themed NYC hotel with ease. Martha Hally's costumes are a perfect delight.
Three Men on a Horse
The Actors Company Theatre (TACT)
BECKETT THEATRE / THEATRE ROW
410 West 42nd Street, NYC