Depression-Era Romp

National Actors Theatre stages the farce `Three Men On a Horse'

THREE MEN ON A HORSE By John Cecil Holm and George Abbott. The National Actors Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre.

WITH a cast headed by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, and supported by such performers as Joey Faye and Jerry Stiller, you can be assured that you will witness some expert comedy turns in "Three Men On a Horse."

Now it could be argued that both Randall and Klugman would be better served by roles that more closely approximate their ages. But considering that this production is the old-fashioned, large cast, multiset comedy of the type that is no longer produced on Broadway, you would have to be particularly churlish to do so.

The play, co-written by John Cecil Holm and George Abbott, is a typical Depression-era romp. Randall plays Erwin Trowbridge, a henpecked writer of greeting- card jingles who has the knack for picking winning horses, which he does for diversion on his way to work. He doesn't actually bet on the horses himself; that would be immoral. But he could certainly use the money, since his wife (Julie Hagerty) has ordered a batch of new dresses C.O.D. and his brother-in-law (Ralph Williams) considers him a worthles s bum.

One day, instead of going to work he stops by a bar to bemoan his fate. There, a group of gamblers, led by Patsy (Klugman), become aware of his talent. Patsy is particularly eager to cash in, since his girlfriend Mabel (Ellen Greene) has had to hock her jewelry, and he hasn't been able to pay his hotel bill. Keeping Erwin plied with liquor, they begin an unstoppable winning streak.

The complications that ensue aren't hard to predict. When Erwin sobers up he is more concerned about his Mother's Day greeting-card deadline than he is about horses. But Patsy and his gang, who are close cousins to the characters created by Damon Runyon for "Guys and Dolls," try to pitch in, with hilarious results. By the end, Erwin has discovered how to stand up for himself, losing his knack for picking winners but regaining his self-respect.

John Tillinger's assured direction keeps this flimsy affair moving sprightly, and pros like Stiller and Faye know how to handle the material. Ellen Greene provides a sweetly comic turn as Mabel. The numerous scene changes are nicely masked by Nora Mae Lyng, who sings period songs.

But it is Randall and Klugman, TV's "Odd Couple," who are the center of attention. Randall uses his expert comedy technique to put across his role, one which is perfectly suited to his temperament.

The microphones could have been turned up to help Klugman, who, having undergone surgery on his throat, speaks in hoarse whispers. His lines are audible, but he is playing the kind of fast-talking, hard-driving role for which a powerful vocal delivery is required. He is also helped by the affection of the audience, who gave him a huge ovation.

Still, it was hard not to think about how much better the play might have been with the same cast, only done 20 years earlier.

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