NEW YORK—For its final main stage production after a 25-year run, The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) offers up the comedy “Three Wise Guys,” a nostalgic work with more than a little heart. Written by Scott Alan Evans and Jeffrey Couchman, and based on two stories by Damon Runyon, the piece includes criminals, chorus girls, high society matrons, and butlers, and for a lucky few, the chance to turn their lives around.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1932, but those at a New York speakeasy run by Good Time Charlie (Ron McClary) are not in a festive mood: The Dutchman (Joel Jones) is $2,000 in debt thanks to a horse race gone bad and has taken a job as a Santa Claus; Blondy Swanson (Karl Kenzler) still pines for Clarabelle Cobb (Victoria Mack), who left him six years before when he refused to renounce the bootlegging trade; and Dancing Dan (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), a happy-go-lucky sort, is on the hit list of racketeer and bootlegger Heine Schmitz (John Plumpis) for going out with the chorus girl Muriel O’ Neill (Mack). Heine also has eyes for her.
After a near miss with Heine, Dan decides to take The Dutchman up on his offer of a trip to Philadelphia, where, as it turns out, The Dutchman has some unfinished and potentially lucrative business pending. With nothing else to do, Blondy decides to go with them.
Before they can get far, the trio encounters an English butler named Myrton (McClary). Forced to leave England after gambling issues of his own, Myrton now works for Mrs. Elizabeth Albright (Dana Smith-Croll) of the Great Neck, New York, Albrights.
Desperately needing a Santa Claus for Mrs. Albright’s Christmas Eve extravaganza, and spotting Dan in The Dutchman’s Santa suit, Myrton begs him to take the job. Dan agrees, with The Dutchman and Blondy accompanying him as elves.
However, unbeknownst to all, Muriel is dancing at the Albright party that night, and not only that, but Heine will also be about, hoping to combine a little pleasure with business. The question soon becomes: Who will make it out of Great Neck in one piece?
There’s something special about Runyon characters. They often inhabit the fringes of society yet have a unique moral code when it comes to right and wrong. Blondy, as a loyal American, will give up bootlegging should liquor become legal again in these United States, because “then it will be most unpatriotic to bring in wet goods from foreign parts.”
The three main characters are, in essence, the same person. Dan is in his 20s and looking forward to a future with Muriel; Blondy is two decades older and unhappy with the direction his life has taken; The Dutchman is older still, with eight children, and has long since accepted his future as fixed in stone (though he is hoping to head to the Hialeah racetrack in Florida for a possible partnership with Myrton, who has a supposedly infallible system for picking horses).
The title of the play (based on the Runyon stories “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” and “The Three Wise Guys”) is a reference to the 1913 novel “The Three Godfathers” by Peter B. Kyne and its subsequent film adaptations. It’s a story of three men outside the law who stumble upon a woman about to give birth.
That part of the plot unfolds in the show’s closing scenes. In the end, just about all of the characters, including Heine, are given a chance to start afresh—though not all of their new directions are exactly legal.
Smith-Croll is the crown jewel of the cast as Mrs. Albright. A hard-as-nails woman and no stranger to the power money brings, Mrs. Albright sees in Heine a valuable asset. Plumpis plays off Smith-Croll wonderfully and does several excellent scenery-chewing turns as Heine.
McClary is fun in the Myrton role, though it would have worked better if he had explained more of his past directly to Blondy, The Dutchman, and Dan, rather than how it’s actually revealed.
Mack is fine in the dual roles of Muriel and Clarabelle. As Clarabelle, her farewell letter to Blondy is particularly touching.
Jones, Kenzler, and Hawkins are all in good form as the title characters, people who seem just fun to be around, at least for a while.
Direction by Scott Alan Evans is nicely paced. Unfolding in leisurely fashion, the tale still manages to cram a lot of action into its deliberately meandering style. Though there are moments when events more than stretch the bounds of credibility, by the time they occur, we are too invested in the story and its characters to mind.
After almost 25 years of producing rarely performed works, TACT is choosing to close with this nostalgic piece. “Three Wise Guys” offers a charming look into a world of gangsters, dames, and ill-gotten gains, with a result that is never anything less than enjoyable.
(Oh, and make a point of checking out the quiz in the show program, to become familiar with some of the Runyon-isms used in the show.)
‘Three Wise Guys’
Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or, Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: April 14
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.