Upstart Director’s Duck Soup Makes Rufus T. Firefly a Girl

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

guns!

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

got guns!

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

London accent.

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

planned action.

“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

Iwo Jima.”

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

stepmother.

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

competition.”

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

beautiful movie.” 

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

cigarette.

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.

“Shadow-day!”

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

eyebrow.

” 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

white teeth.

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

the choreographer.

“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

itself.