It was a gala day in the spare rehearsal room on West 43rd
Street, just a block from a muted Times Square. Four slightly dissolute actors
in their 20’s stood in a row: three men in faded jeans and ratty T-shirts, one
woman in chunky glasses with a green highlighterhanging from her mouth.
“Marxes!” shouted their dark, fuzzy-headed director, Will Frears,
and the actors sprang to life, singing:
They got guns! We got guns! All
God’s children got
The foursome shimmied forward, shaking their hands and wiggling
their hips. The rest of the show’s ensemble joined in:
We’re gonna march all over the battlefield, ‘Cause all God’s children
Mr. Frears, whose thin frame and dark hair made him look like an
old black-bristled toothbrush, crouched against a wall of the rehearsal space,
scrutinizing the performance. His face was expressionless, but four days
earlier he’d volunteeredhisap- praisal of Duck
Soup , the theatrical adaptation ofthe1933Marx Brothers war satire, released
by Paramount Pictures, that he was trying to bring to Broadway in 2001.
“At the moment, it’s either going to be sort of perfect, or the
most appalling thing you could imagine,” Mr. Frears had said in a vague North
Mr. Frears first produced a stage version of director Leo
McCarey’s comedy classic two years ago as a graduate student at Yale. The
adaptation, which Mr. Frears co-wrote, featured actress Dara Fisher in the
Groucho Marx role and generated a positive response. Lillian Ross then
discovered it and wrote a Talk of the Town piece about it for The New Yorker .
But now the stakes were higher, and the times had most certainly
changed. There wasn’t time to dig trenches; Mr. Frears would have to buy them
ready-made. But if he ordered them deep enough, the production would be able to
save on pants.
Mr. Frears was rehearsing the cast, including Ms. Fisher, for two
backers’ auditions scheduled for the Manhattan Theater Club rehearsal room on
Oct. 9 and 11. The list of potential investors who were slated to check out Duck Soup ‘s Broadway-worthiness on those
two nights included representatives from Miramax; producers Fran and Barry
Weissler ( Annie Get Your Gun ),
Richard Frankel ( The Producers ) and
Margo Lion ( Angels in America ); Love writer David Rosenthal; and Mr.
Frears’ I.C.M. agent, the semi-retired Sam Cohn.
In an interview at his minimally furnished Nolita apartment, the
28-year-old Mr. Frears-whose father, Stephen Frears, directed High Fidelity , and whose mother, Mary-Kay Wilmers, edits The London Review of Books -did not sound daunted by the prospect of
raising money for an extremely silly war satire just a month after the events
of Sept. 11 and less than three days after the United States bombed military
targets in Afghanistan.
Mr. Frears leaned forward in a blue-and-lavender plastic deck
chair that, along with a vintage Canada Dry refreshment stand full of booze,
was among the only furniture in his jaunty lime-green living room. Stubbing out
a Marlboro Red, he ran a hand through his unkempt dark hair.
“I did think about canceling the show and talked to various
people about it, and we all decided that we really should do it,” Mr. Frears
said. “Partly [because] making people laugh in a time of trouble is good. And
also, the thing about Duck Soup in
particular is that it’s about times like this.”
In the movie, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is named the dictator of
the mythical country of Freedonia. The story is a skeleton on which all four
brothers ( Duck Soup was Zeppo’s final
film with his siblings) hang A-1 set pieces, including the “mirror scene” in
which Groucho and Harpo mimic each other with flawless accuracy.
Released at the end of the Hoover administration during the peak
of the Depression, Duck Soup was an
enormous flop, though Mussolini was moved to ban it in Italy.
“The Marx Brothers are in no
way heroes,” Mr. Frears said. “They’re not on the side of right; they’re just
out to debunk everything Duck Soup is
not even anti-authority. The thing it makes fun of is snap decisions.” And
that, he said, is the kind of message he feels comfortable sending, as the
world teeters in the liminal space between impulsive vengeance and carefully
“I wanted to come back to
Duck Soup for a giggle …. It has no greater meaning,” Mr. Frears said. It
was a statement any 4-year-old child would understand- but there were no
4-year-old children around, so Mr. Frears forged on: “I guess it does have some
greater meaning, especially at the moment.”
Mr. Frears said that, like everyone else in New York, he’s been
reeling since Sept. 11. He had moved into his one-bedroom walk-up only a week
before the catastrophe.
He’d grown up in London at a time when the city was under the
constant threat of I.R.A. bombings. “I know what it was like to live in a city
where there was a threat,” he said. “I needed to paint the place, and I
remember thinking, ‘Well, I might be going to war, but in the meantime it’s
really important to keep things going.'”
So Mr. Frears painted his living room. On his walls, he hung a
reproduction of a Duck Soup lobby
card and a Sunset Boulevard poster,
which, unlike the Clash poster in his bedroom, is an original.
He also wrote a 2,000-word essay about volunteering at the World
Trade Center site on Sept. 12 for his mother’s paper. Mr. Frears’ piece
appeared in the Review ‘s Oct. 4
issue, alongside work by Frank Kermode and Edward Said.
“As I stood there waiting to be put to work, a group of firemen
put a ladder next to the antenna, braced themselves and the pole and raised the
Stars and Stripes,” Mr. Frears wrote. “A man, some kind of color sergeant, I
presume, shouted: ‘Present arms.’ Every person on the site saluted. I was at
When the subject of his parents’ fame came up, Mr. Frears became
impish. He pulled a straight face and then an embarrassed one before joking:
“They’re coal miners.” Dissolving into a fit of giggles, Mr. Frears recounted
how a friend torments him by repeatedly asking him: “Do you ever feel like
you’re under any pressure to succeed?”
“I moved 3,000 miles away from them,” he said. Then he grinned
and qualified his statement: His mother told him that she’d rather have him
like her and live thousands of miles away than live down the street and not
speak to her.
Mr. Frears’ parents divorced when he was in utero. Mr. Frears lived with his mom and spent every other
weekend with his dad. “It wasn’t Kramer
vs. Kramer ,” he said of having two homes and three parents, including his
His major rebellion was not drugs or drink. “If I’d developed a
heroin habit, my parents would have loved and supported me,” he said. Instead,
since his mother had a degree from Oxford and his father from Cambridge, “it
was much more hurtful to fail high school.” So he did.
Mr. Frears sees a tremendous amount of professional distance
between himself and the other director in his family. “My father doesn’t
actually know what I do, in the same way I have no idea about what he does,” he
said. “We operate in such different mediums that I don’t feel like we’re in
But they certainly don’t ignore each other. The younger Mr.
Frears said that he actually gave his father notes on 1998’s The Hi-Lo Country . He said that Sammy and Rosie Get Laid wasn’t his
favorite of his dad’s projects, though he conceded that that might have been
“because it was right after [ My Beautiful ] Laundrette , which was the most
And Mr. Frears discovered-from his mother-that his father had not
liked his Yale production of Hamlet .
“He didn’t tell me. But he didn’t think I had done it the way Hamlet should be done.”
Moments after he had divulged this bit of family laundry, Mr.
Frears’ forehead creased with concern. He worried that he’d betrayed his
mother’s confidence. “Oh, well,” he laughed, and smoothly lit another
Four days later, Mr. Frears had assumed the crouching position
and was intently watching a scene in which Remy Auberjonois and Austin Jones,
the actors playing the spies Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo), explain
their surveillance methods to Sylvania’s Ambassador Trentino.
“Sure we shadow him!” insisted Chico in a heavy Italian accent.
“We shadow him all day!”
“And what day was that?” inquired Trentino.
Each time Mr. Frears heard Mr. Auberjonois deliver the punch
line, he sputtered with laughter.
The multipocketed trench coat that Mr. Jones (as Harpo) would be
using to store his numerous props wasn’t slated to arrive until the following
day, so he was tromping around the rehearsal stage with three horns wedged
under his belt, a folded newspaper in one back pocket of his baggy brown
corduroy pants, an old-fashioned red alarm clock in another, and a metal flask
that was doubling as a blowtorch in his side pocket. Mr. Jones was doing such a
good job of emulating Harpo that everyone in the room looked momentarily
surprised when he broke his silence to say: “I’m a really good spy!”
Bringing the bulk of the cast back was virtually a necessity,
given the complexities of the physical comedy. The mirror scene requires
painstaking synchronization: moving at exactly the same second, raising arms
and legs to the same millimeter. Ms. Fisher and Mr. Jones got it right enough
to attract the attention of Ms. Ross in her New
Yorker piece about the Yale production in 1999. Mr. Frears conceded that
the publicity probably landed him an agent, I.C.M. co-founder Sam Cohn.
Could the agent, and the attentions of Ms. Ross, have anything to
do with the young director’s lineage?
“I have a last name, but it’s not as though it’s Costner. Or
Hawks, or Peckinpah-” Mr. Frears said, struck by the wonderfully horrible
thought. ” He must have been the worst
father ever !”
He lit another cigarette. Just a week before the Duck Soup readings, he began a job as
P.A. for Paul Schrader on his new film about Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane. “I get coffee, do a little Xeroxing,
listen to everything he says,” Mr. Frears said of the gig, which will include a
seven-week shoot in Los Angeles.
He spent the past summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival,
fleshing out a musical version of The
Outsiders with Michael Friedman, Duck
Soup ‘s musical director. “Nobody said, ‘My God, you’ve written Carousel !'” said Mr. Frears. “But people
seemed to like it.”
Mr. Frears, in an oversize orange button-down shirt, pulled
himself upright and gave a little feline stretch. He approached Chandler
Williams, playing Trentino. “Right, well, just a couple of dumb acting things
to go over with you,” he said. Mr. Frears checked to make sure that he was
being understood before continuing. “It is so important for the straight man to
just plow forward to get what you need without stopping to react. Of course,
with luck, you’ll be holding for laughs …. “
Ms. Fisher, in a threadbare pink Mozart T-shirt and
orange-and-white checked pants, was channeling Groucho even without a mustache.
“Then it’s war! Then it’s war! Gather the forces! Harness the horses!” she
sang, punctuating every exclamation with a pointed finger and a wiggling
” Each native son will grab
a gun and run away to war! ” went the song.
All seven actors piped up in unison: ” At last the country’s going to war! “
Mr. Frears surveyed his gleefully silly friends singing about
guns and flags and fighting. He shook his head and smiled, showing his vulpine
All of a sudden, the giddy marching stopped and the company
gathered center-stage, hoisting an as-yet-imaginary flag.
“This should be the Les Miz
joke here,” Mr. Friedman hollered from the piano.
But the flag-raising looked less Cameron Mackintosh and more Iwo
Jima. In truth, it looked more recent than Iwo Jima.
“A brave, brave, brave effort,” said
“It’s going to be a triumph,” Mr. Frears said half-reassuringly.
He was fighting for the play’s honor, which was more than it had ever done for