Groucho redux. A young actor brings him to today's theatergoers

ONLY Groucho himself could have been more Groucho. Sure, having the straight man blow a line was part of the script. But when a copy of the program landed on the stage, actor Frank Ferrante, impersonating Groucho Marx in a role the comedian made famous on stage and screen, snatched it up, slouch-walked back with a cigar tucked between his fingers, and stretched across a table to show his laughing straight man the name he had ``forgotten.'' ``You people are easily amused,'' he quipped to the ``Animal Crackers'' audience at the Huntington Theatre. ``And so is he.'' An unorthodox move for professional theater, perhaps, but certainly not for Groucho Marx. And Ferrante has the man and his moves down pat.

At the tender age of 25, this California-born actor, who has mastered Groucho's elevator eyebrows and the wacky walk, is reviving the comic's zany antics, prolific puns, and irreverent humor for a new generation of theatergoers. Encouraged by the box office successes of recent Marx Brothers theatrical revivals, Ferrante, who plays Captain Spaulding in the stage revival of ``Animal Crackers,'' has his sights set on Broadway.

When Ferrante sits down for an interview without the greasepaint, it's just his artillery of ever-ready quips and Groucho's trademark ``hanh'' laugh that gives him away. But it's not hard to imagine how this bright-eyed young man could, as a schoolboy, have become enchanted with imitating the Marx Brothers' shenanigans.

``At first, I was attracted to them visually, because their outward appearance is so outrageous,'' Ferrante recalls. ``I said, `This is crazy.' They were doing things I would have just dreamed about doing to my teachers.''

Ferrante saw his first Marx Brothers movie, ``A Day at the Races,'' at age 10, and from then on, he says, the Marx Brothers became his passion. They made their way into everything from his book reports to Halloween costumes. Then, at 13, Ferrante went to a bookstore in California with his father to meet Groucho, who had come to autograph books. ``I thought I'd see the Groucho from `Duck Soup' or the Groucho from the other movies, but when I saw him, he was ancient. It was a week before his 86th birthday.''

Ferrante recalls that Groucho ``answered questions from the audience, and he was hilarious. It's like, after 65 years of being on stage, something clicks when he goes up there, and he was telling jokes. You know, it was like George Burns. ... I will never forget that as long as I live. I was hanging on every word.''

It was this meeting with Groucho, together with the films, that gave Ferrante the characterization he would use in ``Groucho: A Life in Revue,'' which the actor has performed in Kansas City, Mo., London's West End, and New York. Now Ferrante is appearing in the show at the Burt Reynolds Theater in Jupiter, Fla.

In stark contrast to Groucho's own career, Ferrante has become well known in a very short time. It took the Marx Brothers nearly 20 years of vaudeville touring to land their first Broadway contract. But just three years after Ferrante staged a one-man show called ``An Evening With Groucho'' as a student at the University of Southern California, he has played Boston, New York, and London, to rave reviews.

While at USC, Ferrante saw comedian Gabe Kaplan do a one-man show on Groucho and decided to try it himself as a senior project. Ferrante sent invitations to celebrities such as Lucille Ball, who had known Groucho, and to members of the Marx family.

Among those who attended were Groucho's children, Arthur and Miriam, and writer Morrie Ryskind. After the show Mr. Ryskind, who had co-written ``The Cocoanuts'' (1925) and ``Animal Crackers'' (1928), told Ferrante, ``You are the only one who delivered the lines the way I wanted them delivered - except for Groucho.''

In ``Groucho: A Life in Revue,'' Ferrante plays Groucho from his days as a vaudevillian through his role as quizmaster on TV's ``You Bet Your Life'' in the 1950s, to the octogenarian. ``It is an honor, as a performer, to be able to preserve a life and to share a life with other people,'' he says. Marx is a ``once-in-a-lifetime American.''

Suddenly Ferrante grins and leans across the table to do a familiar Groucho joke. Using the comedian's ``radio voice'' of the 1930s, he says, ``I shot an elephant in my pajamas this morning. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know.''

Although playing Groucho has occupied a lot of his life, Ferrante insists that his own sense of humor is different from Groucho's. It is more gentle, Ferrante says. ``You understand [Groucho's] comedy, I think, by analyzing his early childhood period. He was an unloved son. ... He was very insulting towards women. He was also very defensive.''

What Ferrante likes most about Groucho's wit is the blend of physical and verbal anarchy. ``He's so unpredictable,'' Ferrante explains. ``One moment he's playing coy; one moment he's playing aggressive. One moment he's insulted; one moment he's insulting. I mean - I love that. I used to sit in bed at night and think: Wouldn't it be great to make people laugh the way he did?'' Now, Ferrante is busy reading scripts, writing bits of his own, crossing legs with Harpo, crawling over Chico, and laughing ``hanh.''

He resumes his role in ``Animal Crackers'' when it reopens in Atlanta Sept. 7.

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