Like the Holy Roman Empire, which was none of the above, the Flying Karamazov Brothers are not airborne, Russian or kin. And though they call their new show “4Play,” their multiple skills, profusely and diversely displayed, make it look more like 40 at multitalented play.
Founded in 1973 by Paul Magid, who alone is still with them, they have been at it ever since: a quartet that is musical, histrionic, jocular, balletic, acrobatic and almost continually juggling -- clubs, balls, and just about everything from a meat cleaver to a burning torch, from sundry musical instruments to a dead flounder.
Their act combines vaudeville jokes with expert, funny musicianship, e.g., playing the adjacent Brother’s instrument with one hand while juggling Indian clubs with the other, or performing an outrageous ballet parody in absurd drag while spouting mostly punning jokes.
It is hilarious, thrilling and sometimes even beautiful, as when, in pitch dark, they juggle luminous clubs. That some of the show is improvised adds to the unleashed fun.
At one climactic moment, they ask for objects between one ounce and 10 pounds with no jagged edges and no bigger than a breadbox. From among the numerous ones proffered or tossed onstage, audience applause picks the unlikeliest three for Magid to juggle.
Failure results in a pie in the face, but success (which is near unfailing) leaves us wide-eyed with wonder.
What all is juggled with! A stick of unwrapped butter, a cube of dry ice, open umbrellas, a full backpack, a cheesecake, a fishnet stocking filled with raw eggs, and anything else you care to bring along.
Besides Magid (Dmitri), the brotherhood includes Roderick Kimball (Pavel), Stephen Bent (Zossima) and Mark Ettinger (Alexei), who is also the music director and apt pianist, though all four of them can uproariously play their trombone, trumpet, clarinet or piccolo.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes are black, kilted biker and the set consists entirely of cardboard boxes of every size and description, some piled high, some suspended from above. On these, the brethren do some multifarious drumming when they are not climbing out of them, hiding behind them, or shuffling them around with maniacal brio to no purpose whatever.
There’s an overlong number about Polish immigrant coalminers in West Virginia, but even that includes a hearty visual gag.
And while there is no actual flying by the pranksters themselves, everything else onstage flies in ever more daring patterns, to ever more stunning altitudes, and to ever growing audience delight.
At the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane. Information: +1-866-448-7849; http://www.ticketmaster.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)