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Three Wise Guys, a Farewell to a Good Old Reliable Theater Company

Follow the fold to Theatre Row for a new adaptation of short stories by ''Guys and Dolls'' writer Damon Runyon.

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Joel Jones, Karl Kenzler, Ron McClary, and Jeffrey C. Hawkins star in Three Wise Guys at Theatre Row.
(© Marielle Solan)

After 25 years, TACT, the Actors Company Theatre, has decided to close its doors. Its final production is a loose adaptation of two short stories by Damon Runyon collectively titled Three Wise Guys. Written by Scott Alan Evans, the longtime artistic director, and Jeffrey Couchman, the play is as much an elegy for a bygone era as it is for an off-Broadway company on its way out, fully exemplifying the organization's modest successes even if it doesn't always work.

Were it not for Guys and Dolls, the classic musical inspired by a different set of his stories, Runyon would probably be a forgotten figure in 2018; his tales of gangsters and their molls, all of whom talk in their own idiosyncratic vernacular, are out of step with contemporary sensibilities. In short, they are ripe for TACT treatment, thoroughly in keeping with their mission to reintroduce audiences to long-neglected works of the past.

The source materials here are Dancing Dan's Christmas and The Three Wise Guys, both nearly 80 years old. Evans and Couchman's adaptation, which conflates the two unrelated stories into one piece, is set on Christmas Eve, when Blondy Swanson (Karl Kenzler), the Dutchman (Joel Jones), and Dancing Dan (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) find themselves on the run from bootlegger Heine Schmitz (John Plumpis). Their screwball adventure takes them from Good Time Charlie's saloon in Manhattan to a barn in the Keystone State, where Blondy encounters an old acquaintance and the Dutchman hunts for loot he hid following a heist long ago.

Joel Jones, Jeffrey C. Hawkins, Karl Kenzler, and Ron McClary in Three Wise Guys.
(© Marielle Solan)

Evans, who directs, and Couchman take certain liberties, particularly in the play's entirely invented middle section, where Dancing Dan is forced to play Santa at a Great Neck Christmas party, with Blondy and the Dutchman as his elves. This is where the work really falters, mostly because it has a tendency to lose the distinctive Runyonese that the rest of the work so pleasingly encapsulates (though it is in keeping with his present-tense, contraction-free manner, it feels less authentic than the rest). Overall, however, they've managed to create a largely satisfying piece, one that will clearly live on in regional and community theaters (there are a lot of characters, and a lot of parts, to go around).

Though Evans's staging could use a little more energy, his physical production is very nicely realized, combining an abstract set (Jason Ardizzone-West) with period-style projections (Dan Scully), gangster movie-esque lighting (Mary Louise Geiger) and costumes (David Toser), and evocative shadow puppetry (Andy Gaukel) to create a unique milieu that's at once reminiscent of Runyon's vision of Broadway and yet entirely original. The performances are similarly credible, with Kenzler and Plumpis really capturing the delicious rhythms of Runyon's speech patterns.

Over the course of its lifetime, TACT has reintroduced audiences to works by Edward Bond and Anita Loos, Sidney Howard and Beth Henley. Three Wise Guys, not perfect but still enjoyable, is not only a sweet addition to their oeuvre, but a respectful way to bring down the curtain.

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