The great Frank McGuinness turns his hand to the absurd in this new, farcical exploration of friendship and death. In Dinner With Groucho, everything and nothing becomes clear, in a classically absurdist play where very little happens and yet everything is contemplated.
McGuiness’s new play is written with wit, and linguistic dexterity, it fluidly taps into some of the core brilliance of absurdism. The essential premise is suitably ridiculous, Groucho Marx and T.S. Elliot are having dinner at an empty restaurant, where the food never comes, and the maître d’ never seems to pay them any attention. They talk, they argue, they dance and that is it. As in many absurdist plays, almost nothing happens, and yet in their petty disputes, witty asides and cynical remarks, McGuiness asks fundamental existential questions. The unquestioned strength of this is McGuiness’s writing, which is slick, smooth and playful; subtly delving into complex experiences and questions.
The performances, however, are varied. Greg Hicks who plays T.S. Eliot is, for the most part, fairly natural on stage, with a presence and charisma that engage the audience. Ian Bartholemew as Groucho Marx struggled in the enormous shoes to fill, while Ingrid Craigie as the maître d’ has her moments of comedy. Their performances could have done with a strong kick of the comedic nature.
There is a lot of talk in this play, about Jewish stuff, Groucho was Jewish and is one of the fathers of American Jewish comedy. T.S. Eliot had some fairly antisemitic tendencies. This barely felt addressed and as a Jew sitting in the audience I couldn’t help but think that might play into the conversations more.
McGuinness is a terrific writer, and this is not much of a change in form. Sometimes the pacing is at odds with what makes sense, but then perhaps it is McGuinness committing to a nonsensical telling of a nonsensical story. That being said I struggled with the interpretation of the text. Usually, absurdism is played as deadly serious, or completely meaningless. This was quite self-aware, quite a few fourth wall breaks and self-deprecating jokes meant that this occasionally lost some of its depth and poignance.
Often when I leave absurdism, I find that I have sunk into quite a deep reflection. As sharp and engaging as the writing is in this, I am not sure how deep McGuinness has gotten within me. What opens with witty repartee becomes weary, and I couldn’t help but wonder where McGuinness was going with this one.
Review by Tom Carter
Two men, together, on the edge of heaven. In a strange restaurant, two American giants who revere each other, Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot, meet for dinner. Both in their own ways great defiant spirits, they create magic and anarchy, revealing secrets and sorrows. The evening is presided over by the Proprietor, who seems to control the workings of the universe. Or does she? In Dinner With Groucho, all is revealed. Or nearly so.
The world premiere of Dinner With Groucho
By Frank McGuinness
Ian Bartholomew as Groucho Marx
Ingrid Craigie as Proprietor
Greg Hicks as T.S. Eliot
ARCOLA THEATRE, STUDIO 1
17 November – 10 December 2022