Let me be clear. George S. Kaufman is one of my heroes, and his collaborations with Moss Hart were defining moments in the golden age of American comedy. But his partnerships with other others were not always as successful. In this one with Ring Lardner, too many laughs ring false; and the first half suffers from too much lard. If only Kaufman had been able to apply the advice he once gave Hart about troubled first acts.
In this case it is also a problematic prologue, in which Fred and Edna, a couple of rubes from Schenectady, meet cute on a train bound for New York City, where Fred is going to ply his trade as a lyric writer, and Edna will work for a dentist. It’s embarrassing stuff that bodes derailment ahead. Granted that some of the lines are hokey, but the acting is so forcedly naive and over-the-top that Nate Corddry’s Fred and Rachel Napoleon’s Edna are mere cartoons, more idiotic than innocent. Like a young James Stewart, Corddry has the face of a naïf, but lacks the former’s naturalism and genuineness.
The romance is mercifully shunted in act one, which takes place in the bland Manhattan apartment that tunesmith Paul Sears (Rick Holmes) shares with his bored wife, Lucille (Kate MacCluggage), and her vampish sister, Eileen (Holly Fain). It is here that the groundwork is set for the corruption of Fred’s innocence (not very interesting) and the satire of the Tin Pan Alley music industry (more promising). But for the periodic Kaufman-esque bon mots delivered with dry aplomb by the wonderful MacCluggage and effetely tossed off by the valuable David Turner (as a pianist), it is a pretty labored crawl across Tobin Ost’s squat set that suggests the WTF has fallen on hard times and lowers our expectations for the rest of the evening.
But then everything changes in the second act when the curtain rises on Ost’s epic setting of a song-publishing studio abuzz with bad tunes, good tunes, intrigue, deceit, colorful characters and dynamic staging. It is also here that Jessica Stone’s direction, freed from fatty exposition, becomes buoyant, inventive and playful in ways that recall her masterful work with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
This is never more evident than when working with her husband, Christopher Fitzgerald, who commits a grand larceny in the small role of a self-impressed hack songwriter who effortlessly steals his almost every scene merely by the virtue of being hugely talented and a seeming descendent of the Commedia del’arte’s chief zanni, Arlecchino. Particularly hilarious is an exchange between him and the equally commanding Whitney Maris Brown, who is as infectiously comic as she is impossibly beautiful. There is also a wonderful bit between Jason Bowen’s window cleaner and Turner, whose Maxie becomes the play’s most reliable and enjoyable dispatcher of the witty rejoinders most associated with Kaufman. Kudos, too, to music director Kris Kukul and Turner for coming up with some very catchy period music that sets the mood and helps us time-travel as nicely as do Gregg Barnes’ costumes.
By the third act, Corddry imbues Fred with a much more natural delivery, and his malapropisms become genuinely funny as Fred becomes an unlikely star on Tin Pan Alley. Unfortunately, he has also turned into a heel as undeserving of Edna (whom Napoleon also makes more dimensional) as he is of our sympathy. It becomes a fascinating dramaturgical problem in a play that wants to be both romantic comedy and mordant satire. Kaufman, who famously observed that “satire is what closes on Saturday night,” knew that Lardner’s heartless solution would not play to audiences. His own solution doesn’t satisfy either, and results in probably the only third act misstep of his career.
Fortunately, Stone keeps all moving swiftly and engages our interest and goodwill even where the play falters. While I appreciate the chance to see this less-frequently-performed piece, I’d much rather see her turn her talents to Kaufman with more Hart.