Arthur Marx ends his memoir, "Son of Groucho," by saying: "If it was hard to get out from under his shadow, it wasn't his fault. A giant's shadow often falls a great distance."
Indeed, the younger Marx has made a mini-career out of writing about his father -- two books of memoirs and two plays (co-written with Robert Fisher), "Minnie's Boys" and, more recently, "Groucho: A Life in Revue," which has opened the season at Totem Pole Playhouse.
Les Marsden, who stars in and directed Totem Pole's production, has also made something of a specialty of the Marx Brothers. That probably accounts for his ability to transform himself physically into a thoroughly credible facsimile of Groucho at various stages of his life.
These transformations take place on a set representing Marx's dressing room. In the first act, when Marsden emerges from behind his dressing-table mirror, he's wearing Groucho's trademark thick greasepaint eyebrows and mustache, wire-rimmed glasses and frock coat. In the second act, he changes from the gray-haired Groucho of "You Bet Your Life" to the frail senior citizen who favored jaunty berets and turtlenecks.
The dressing-room scenes, however, are among the more theatrical in this fairly unimaginative stage bio, whose structure consists primarily of Groucho narrating a chronological account of the major events in his life.
The "and-then-and-then-and-then" format is fortunately interrupted by scenes in which many of these events are acted out by Marsden and Tony Simotes, who alternately portrays Chico and Harpo, and by Marianne Leblanc, whose role is described in the program as "all of the women in Groucho's life" (most of whom she portrays with jarring brashness).
Like Marsden, Simotes has also mastered the Marx Brothers' looks and gestures. Yet when the two actors re-enact scenes from "Animal Crackers" or the brothers' early sketch, "Fun in Hi Skule," their timing isn't swift enough to do justice to the classic Marx zaniness.
We learn a lot of family history along the way (but next to nothing about the two brothers not portrayed on stage). Growing up in near poverty had a lifelong effect on the brothers, though Groucho and Chico exhibited opposite reactions. Groucho developed a reputation for stinginess, while Chico became a compulsive gambler. But despite losing a fortune, Chico had a knack for finding gambling buddies -- theater owners and movie producers -- who gave the Marx Brothers some of their biggest breaks.
The portrait painted of Groucho in "A Life in Revue" is more fond and less petty than that in the biography "My Life with Groucho." And the sprightly musicianship of the three-piece instrumental ensemble led by John Lehr Opfar injects welcome pizazz into the show's often sluggish pacing. (It's also fun to hear the band's bird whistles compete with the real thing just outside Totem Pole's partly open-air theater.)
In an exchange from "Animal Crackers," Chico says to Groucho: "Hey, boss, I hear you just got back from Africa." Groucho responds: "Safari so good." Applying that to the start of the Totem Pole season, I'd say: "Safari not bad -- could be a bit better."
"Groucho: A Life in Revue"
Where: Totem Pole Playhouse, 9555 Golf Course Road, Caledonia State Park, Fayetteville, Pa., 14 miles west of Gettysburg
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through June 18
Call: (717) 352-2164