Illegitimate Players

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Funny is too weak a word for what’s going on at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater. Remember Monty Python’s killer joke? The Illegitimate Players have come up with the killer show.

The Players have scaled comic heights before. Their Glass Mendacity was the most devastating send-up of Tennessee Williams since his last four plays, and All My Spite reduced Arthur Miller to an hour-long gut buster. But with Of Grapes and Nuts, a surefire satire on Steinbeck, they’ve struck the mother lode of comedy. Few shows nowadays–on Wells Street or off–can choke a crowd on its own laughter. This one had audience members, even sober critics, gasping for air. Fortunately the guffaws drowned out the sound of Steinbeck rolling in his grave.

The authors’ note hints at what to expect: “The characters, locations, and story line depicted in this play are not intended to represent . . . the works of certain famous American authors, either living or dead, especially those who are dead but are survived by a spouse who may be short on a sense of humor but long on legal representation.” Of Grapes and Nuts (written by ensemble members Doug Armstrong, Keith Cooper, and Tom Willmorth) crushes two Great American Classics, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, into one hilarious parody. Steinbeck’s easy emoting, corn-pone rhetoric, hayseed aphorisms, heavy symbols, and rhapsodic speechifying that turns characters into bullhorns are all grist for a merciless mill. At the same time this production is richly reverent: you can taste the Players’ gratitude for the straight lines they so deftly deflate.

In punch line after punch line, the witty script supplies the one thing Steinbeck lacked: a sense of humor. Tom Joad’s tortured similes–“I’m more confused than a one-eyed man at a 3-D movie” or “Our truck is slower than a one-toothed man in a corn-eatin’ contest”–are a running joke. Ma Joad’s pile-driving speech about escalating degrees of madness (the worst is “mean mad, just roastin’ an’ boilin’ in juices of hate”) is a comic masterpiece.

Of Grapes and Nuts dogs its originals like a comic bloodhound, especially the dirt-poor, dumb-as-rocks Joad clan. Fresh from jail, Tom has brought back to Oklahoma the hulking Lenny, the lovable lunkhead who dreams of owning his own rabbit farm and who has this unfortunate yen to fondle ladies’ “soft and manageable” hair. Under Lenny’s huge overalls he carries his beloved collection of crushed animals (resembling Laura’s pathetic collection of melting ice animals in Glass Mendacity).

After learning how Lincoln Savings and Loan has evicted the clan from their ancestral dirt in his absence, Tom emotes: “This is Joad land! We carved out the drinkin’ well with our fingers, 60 feet deep. Pa’s teeth are made outta gravel found on this land . . .” Someone punctures his pathos by saying that maybe if they’d dumped phosphate on the land instead of blood and tears, they might still own the farm.

Tom encounters the defrocked reverend, Jim Casy, formerly “your average tongue-speakin’, bush-burnin’, tent-packin’, bread-breakin’, grape juice-pourin’ crackpot fer Jesus.” Casy is no longer baptizing souls in the irrigation canal, at an average of 44 per minute–there was just too much temptation: “Their souls was all hopped up with the glory of the meetin’ one minute, the next minute we’re out back in the grass doin’ the Gomorrah.”

Enter pucker-pussed Ma Joad, glad to see her “mean mad” murderous son back with his kinfolks to keep misery company. When the Joads complain about being dispossessed, a yuppified Company Man tells them to hire a lobbyist to talk to the “Board of Dissectors.” Ma tells him off: “When a man’s lost his soul, he ain’t good for nothin’ but middle management.”

Tom, Ma, and cantankerous Pa head west to pick peaches and see a color they haven’t seen much in the dust bowl: green. (Pa can’t wait to squish grapes and melons and more all over his face.) They take Lenny, too, though to make room for him Ma must leave behind her treasured keepsakes–a floppy Oklahoma Sooners foam-rubber hat and a shirt that says “My Son Went to Prison,” and on the back, “And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.”

Despite highways so clogged with Okies’ Hudson trucks that diesels take the side roads, they reach a Highway 66 diner (with an ad for “Hoover Cola”: “a chicken in every bottle”) where Ma does some hard bargaining for a loaf of bread, then spends all their savings on junk candy. Absurdities mount like a dust storm as they reach the California border: Grandma has died along the way, but the Joads, clothespins on their noses, insist on burying her in the Golden State. Pa’s dying to munch some grapes–and does when he gobbles down a DDT sampler by mistake. At least he croaked in California, though the family has to roll him down a ravine to get him technically across the border in the sidesplittingly weird tableau that ends the first act.

Incarcerated in a bunkhouse on a California fruit ranch, the Joads and Casy fight to form a union, which manages in no time to become as corrupt as the Teamsters. Their money- grubbing foe is evil Curly (from Of Mice and Men), here a salivating dominatrix in a black poodle wig. She knows how to keep them in their places: “Don’t ever forget that outside my ranch right now I got folks lining up ten miles deep hoping just for a chance to sneak barebelly over a field of barbed wire so they can bribe a guard to let ’em enter a lottery for the jobs you got.”

Curly is lonely (her industrial-strength hair scares most men), so she makes a play for Lenny; they do a slam dance that does her in. To save the union from scandal, Tom must send Lenny to that rabbit farm in the sky–but the big lug’s a lot like Rasputin. Finally Tom takes off after making his Big Speech: “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. Hidin’ in the bushes, but I’ll be there.” Cynical Ma has the last word: “I give him a week.”

Grapes has a knack for repeating cliches until they self-destruct; it misses so few targets that I’m amazed at two omissions: there’s no send-up of Ma Joad’s big “We’re the people” speech, and no slam at Steppenwolf (which has staged both Steinbecks). Never mind: Paul Frellick’s laugh-a- minute staging is crammed with so much ingenious fun, splendidly timed, mugged, and cracked, that if comedy can cure, this spoof should be the Lourdes of show business.

The Illegitimate Players couldn’t be more authentic if they’d played Broadway and accepted a fortune from AT&T. Tom Willmorth’s vaporous Tom Joad, a dead-on Henry Fonda clone, seems on the verge of exploding from sheer integrity. More like a dithering Grandma Clampett than Jane Darwell’s monumental cinematic Ma, Maureen Morley easily gums her way into your heart.

Doug Armstrong is equally on target as the square-jawed, sex-crazed Jim Casy and the grape-crazed Pa. As fiendishly funny are Maureen FitzPatrick’s horny overseer and Keith Cooper’s Baby Huey-style Lenny, his eyes bugging out as he tries to unwrinkle a squished mouse: that these oddballs out seem made for each other is no small stage triumph. Paul Stroili’s straight-man performances as a union organizer, diner customer, and company man anchor this travesty’s mayhem.

Of Grapes and Nuts should keep Live Bait on their toes. Girls, Girls, Girls, Live on Stage, Totally Rude finally has a rival for the funniest show in town.