The Stage Takes another Look at Horse Racing History. And the Winner Is...
Three Men on a Horse
History News Network
March 21, 2011
At the start of Three Men on a Horse, patrons get a replica 1935 race card and lay imaginary bets on their favorite with track workers dressed as they were that year. Three small horses race across the stage. Everybody yells loudly as the horses move. There is a winner and a pay off in fake money.
People who bet on horses races have two dreams. First, that they could go back in time twenty-four hours with a newspaper in their pocket telling them who won races at a local track so they could bet on sure thing. Second, that they could meet a mathematician who could figure out winners.
There is a third dream, though, and that is to meet a goofy man who, through ridiculous schemes, whether tarot cards, favorite colors or astrology charts, is able to pick winners.
The goofy man is Erwin Trowbridge, a meek, mild mannered fellow from New York who writes greeting cards for a living, adores his worrying wife and hates his brother-in-law. He picks winners only while riding on a particular bus and looking for odd horse names. He never loses. One day he wanders into a drug store and meets three professional gamblers who are mesmerized by his abilities to pick winners. The gamblers, and the ditzy blonde who travels with them, kidnap Erwin and make him part of their gambling cabal.
What follows is a crazy story about Erwin's desperate desire to break free of the gamblers and get back to his job. He writes greeting cards while in captivity. Erwin's horse pickings skills may be legendary, but his greeting card poems are just awful.
From there, the story spins off into a nutty comedy about race tracks and the denizens of the night who hang out there, all certain, as we all are, that we can pick horses that cannot lose.
Three Men on a Horse has been revived several times, re-written and produced as a musical and made into a movie. It is a very funny play with an unending appeal to the gambler in all of us. It is a comedic valentine to a bygone era in American history.
It has problems, though. First, it is hard to translate a 1935 play, albeit hilarious in spots, to 2011. Horse racing today -- indeed all gambling -- is far different today than it was nearly eighty years ago. The storyline, that Erwin can pick winners but never bets on them, challenges the disbelief needed to make theater work, and not for the magical element. Seriously, who is NOT going to make millions betting on sure things if you can? While Three Men on a Horse sizzles at many points, it creaks at others.
Geoffrey Molloy is wonderful as the muddling Trowbridge and James Murtaugh, in the rather small role of his boss, J.D. Carver, an angry, disoriented, bumbling man, is majestic.
Director Scott Alan Evans, however, does fine work with the show, keeping the pace quick and the action sharp for most of the night. He milks it for every laugh that Holm and Abbott tossed into the script.
One good thing about Three Men on a Horse is that there is a lot of history about horse racing through 1935 in the program to give the audience needed background. They even printed a comparison table of dollar values in the 1930s versus today ($5 in 1935 is worth $79 today) and a year by year unemployment rate chart for the Great Depression (21.7 percent in the year the play was first produced).
Horse racing buffs, and there are plenty of them, will get a chuckle out of Three Men on a Horse. After all, gambling is gambling and that hasn't changed in four thousand years. Sports history lovers will enjoy yet another look at the horse racing story. All are in for a wild ride, some of it good and some of it tedious, towards the finish line.