Before Matt Groening, before Art Spiegelman, before even Charles Schultz, there was Milt Gross. Gross was a pioneering early-20th-century American cartoonist, one whose comic strips, graphic novels, and animated films were all inflected with an immigrant Jewish accent and sensibility. Almost a century later, Gross’ parody of Jewish life in 1920s New York, “Nize Baby,” has been adapted to the stage by the Medicine Show Theatre, a company that is known for its experimental approach to classic works. An ensemble cast of 11 will perform the show; the music is written by Lenny Hat and Sandra Sprecher.
Photo: Scene from Medicine Show Theatre¹s "Nize Baby," based on the comic strips
Gross, born in the Bronx in 1895, scored his first success with “Gross Exaggerations,” which was an illustrated column in the New York World. In it he reproduced the heavily Yiddish accented, phonetically spelled speech of Jewish immigrants in a tenement house in the Bronx. These bewildered newcomers to America told their children comically mangled “ferry tales” (such as “Jack witt de binn stuck” and “De Pite Piper from Hemilton”) quarreled, poked fun at the politicians from Tammany Hall, and tried desperately to strike it rich any way they could. Collected in book form in 1926 as “Nize Baby,” the tales ultimately became a Sunday supplement color comic strip.
Gross also made silent animated films, and went on to publish a number of other books, including a hilarious parody of Longfellow’s Hiawatha and a 300 page wordless graphic “novel,” composed entirely of pen-and-ink drawings. During the Depression, he contributed comic strips to the Hearst newspapers; these included “Count Screwloose of Toulouse,” “Dave’s Delicatessen,” “Otto and Blotto,” and “That’s My Pop!” — the last of which evolved into a radio show.
While Gross, who novelist Michael Chabon has called a “lost wonder of the American literary funhouse,” is largely forgotten today, his star may be on the rise. A collection of Gross’ work, “Is Diss a System,” edited by Ari Kelman, was published at the end of last year by NYU Press.
Barbara Vann is the founding director of The Medicine Show Theatre, a 40-year-old company that takes its name from the only form of art that is completely homegrown, with no parallels in European culture. In selecting plays, she said, the theater looks for for “juxtapositions of aspects of Americana.” The new production is no exception, with the performers acting out Gross’ cartoons, hitting each other with an actual slapstick, and employing absurdist and melodramatic conventions drawn from vaudeville and silent film. Little wonder, Vann said, that she has been called a “quiltmaker” of theatrical forms.
Vann compared “Nize Baby” to the company’s production of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” in 2004; both productions, in her words, “take language as a raw material of consciousness and sculpt it around.” She noted that her company, which is “brave enough to be unpopular,” aims to use pop culture “to enlighten rather than to stupefy.” Working on “Nize Baby” has been for Vann, to borrow a phrase from Gross, a “cruller roaster ride.” After seeing the play, she predicted, “You won’t hear a lot of words the same way again.”
“Nize Baby” runs through June 26 at the Medicine Show Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 4 p.m. For tickets, $18, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit smarttix.com.
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