Shakespeare & Originals’ A Mouthfulla Sacco & Vanzetti is so good it almost lives up to its ambitions. That’s no small achievement, as the folks associated with S&O are a pretty ambitious bunch. Their current production is built around a core of well-known local talent that includes playwright Michael A. Smith, director Tom Marriott and actors Jay O’Berski and Jeffrey Scott Detwiler. But an ideal rendering of Sacco & Vanzetti would tax the combined abilities of the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, the WPA’s Living Newspaper project and the Mercury Theatre under the direction of Orson Welles.
In real life, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and self-confessed anarchists charged with murdering two men during a 1920 payroll robbery in Massachusetts. Their guilt or innocence is still debated, but the blatant anti-foreigner and anti-radical bias that pervaded their trial and execution made them martyrs to a generation of leftists and civil libertarians, including future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Playwright Smith has taken that historical record and run it through a paper shredder, and the result is now being thrown around the stage of Manbites Dog Theater like so much confetti. In this self-described “historical comedy,” O’Berski’s Vanzetti is a softhearted Marxist with a Groucho walk and a Chico accent. Detwiler’s Sacco takes more after Harpo–all curls, sweetness and puppylike lechery–but with tones of Chaplinesque pathos. The whole production is suffused with similar echoes of late-silent, early-talkies Hollywood, from Marriott’s fast-moving, presentational direction, to Jaimie Wolcott’s set (black panels painted with huge gears straight out of Modern Times) to Lissa Brennan’s black-and-gray costumes.
The show is an almost non-stop marathon for Detwiler and O’Berski, who spend most of its two hours displaying their skills at physical comedy, but they’re blessed with a supporting company that would have made Preston Sturges proud. As lawyer Clarisse Moore (a character Smith invented), Jenny Rebecca Hill perfectly embodies the Hollywood ideal of American womanhood, circa 1928, with her marcelled hair, peaches-and-cream complexion and un-ironic sincerity. Chris Norkus gives the show’s funniest characterization as Clarisse’s silly-ass fiancé, a lockjawed do-gooder in knickers who can’t help looking down his patrician nose at the workers he’s trying to uplift. (His best moment comes when he’s simultaneously talking union organizing and slurping soup, which should clue you in to the overall tone.)
Mark Miller is all sharp-nosed, beady-eyed dimness in an assortment of roles, including a waiter and a policeman. Carl Martin plays a cop and a factory owner with walruslike self-satisfaction, Carrie Beason gets funnier with her every appearance as a shy, self-conscious papergirl, and Marcia Edmundson is effectively screechy as a boarding-house owner and the judge at Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial. That trial is the least inventive part of the play, partly because it revisits ground already covered, definitively, by the Marx Brothers, and partly because it cries out for an icy touch of satire amid all the belly laughs.
Sacco & Vanzetti contains a lot of hilarity and some welcome, humanizing touches of real feeling, but it deliberately downplays the indignation. By design, it’s an almost apolitical play about a subject that once aroused the most intense political passions. You can quarrel with that approach, but there’s no quarreling with the talent, inventiveness and sheer fun with which Shakespeare & Originals has tackled it.