Art Starter: Dennis Manahan

15 August 2012 | 6:00 am | Aleksia Barron

“We cover a lot of different Grouchos... Young Groucho, Groucho from his game show period in the 50s, old Groucho, and the Groucho character from the films."

Groucho

Groucho

Few acts occupy as prominent a position in our cultural memory as the Marx Brothers, who achieved infamy in the first half of the 20th century. Groucho Marx, arguably the most prominent of the five comedians, is the subject of playwright Neil Cole's new work Groucho. The “comedy, drama and musical” is a unique challenge for Melbourne-based actor Dennis Manahan, who will be playing the all-important titular role during the play's Chapel Off Chapel run. 

It would be natural to assume that Manahan is a true aficionado of the quintet. However, that isn't quite the case. “I remember finding them funny as a kid, but to be honest, before this show came along I didn't really know any more about them than the next person on the street,” he says.

Rather than being a particular fan of Groucho, Manahan was drawn to the role because of his relationship with playwright Neil Cole. They two became familiar with each other when Manahan won a role in Cole's play Tunnel Rat in 2011. “[I was] playing the title role of tunnel rat, Ronnie Giles, a real person and friend of Neil's who suffers post traumatic stress disorder because of his experiences in the tunnels in the Vietnam war,” explains Manahan. “Neil liked my work and asked me to take on Groucho.”

The more Manahan learned about Groucho, the more excited he became about playing him. “After reading the script and doing some research I became more and more interested in the subject. The life of Groucho Marx is really a rich vein of varied and fascinating material,” he explains.

While the script contains some treats for Marx Brothers fans, those unfamiliar with Groucho's work won't be left in the dark. “We cover a lot of different Grouchos,” says Manahan. “Young Groucho, Groucho from his game show period in the 50s, old Groucho, and the Groucho character from the films. The reward is in feeling that we're mastering this complex world and made it understandable and fun in all its crazy anarchy.”

Groucho opens tonight, until Sunday 26 August, Chapel Off Chapel.