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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
See also June Moon-- Again the show's re-opening at the Variety Arts.
Both George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner typified the many young people for whom New York represented the place to be if you wanted to make your mark on the cultural landscape. Both were more talented and sophisticated versions of Fred Stevens, the young songwriter who stands at the center of June Moon, the comedy with music on which they successfully collaborated in 1929. Stevens' migration to Broadway and the world of song publishing and night clubs is one both Kaufman and Lardner knew well. Lardner especially knew the dreams and disappointments of following in the footsteps of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin who appear, albeit in name only, throughout the play. While enormously popular as a short story writer and columnist, his life-long involvement in writing song lyrics seeded success just once and that was with June Moon.
Now the Drama Dept., one of the most interesting young non-profit companies to come down the theatrical pike, has dusted off this long-ago but largely forgotten hit and given it a stylish and well-acted limited production at the Ohio Theater on Wooster Street. Happily, the funny one-liners and malapropisms still work, making for an entertaining two hours. Yet this 1997 production veers closer to the story's dark shadows than the original laugh-a-minute show. Part of the more dispersed laughter is probably due to audience exposure to more contemporary lines delivered with machine-gun precision by the playwright most often considered Kaufman's heir, Neil Simon, as well as scores of television and comedy club comedians. More importantly, it's because director Mark Nelson has the actors drawing on the two playwrights' somewhat different visions. You see while both were known as humorists, Lardner's characters often teetered at the edge of despair. In short, his humor was tinged with the sharp bite of satire--and according to Kaufman's much quoted "satire is what closes on Saturday night" this was a No-No in the theater.
Again contrary to Kaufman's notions abut entertainment, Lardner's couples did not always live happily ever after. The story which served as the basis for June Moon was in fact about a love affair that never flew up, ("Some Like Them Cold," one of four short stories in a 1924 collection entitled How to Write Short Stories). Kaufman's view that if boy-meets-girl-boy-gets- girl turned Lardner's ending around. But as the characters in this production allow the underpinnings of Lardner's more jaded dreamers to show through, so this ending is more bitterweet than sublimely blissful.
While the clouds that peek through the sunny horizons, make for some uneveneness in the first act's pacing, there's a tradeoff in more three-dimensional and thus more memorable characters. The show remains a comedy, with its humor grounded in the basic situation. In a nutshell, we have a small town lyricist abroad in a world of show biz. The comedic elements evolve from the clash between innocence embodied by the songwriter and the homebody girl he meets on the train from Schenectady to New York and the play's more seasoned haves and have-nots--a song writer who can't repeat his former success and his dissatisfied wife and her gold-digger sister, plus assorted denizens from the world of song publishing.
Lardner whose humor often derived from fractured English probably contributed most of Stevens', (Geoffrey Nauffts), malapropisms like "I got no respect for a man who wouldn't respect a woman's hood" and, "She's from New York State" when Eileen, (Cynthia Nixon), threatens to sue Edna, (Stacy Highsmith), for alienation of affection. Many of the one liners are sheer Kaufman and the composer-pianist Maxie , (Albert Macklin), who gets to toss out more than his fair share of them comes closest to being Kaufman's alter ego--that's "Maxie Schwartz--it's a Greek name." These and the other players manage to bring off their roles with just the right blend of sassiness and vulnerability. The lovely Cynthia Nixon smiles a lot, but you see the nervous desperation behind the smile. Robert Joy as the "blocked" Paul Sears has a terrific moment when he discovers that the hit song he's yearned for may have come too late. Becky Ann Baker as Paul's wisecracking wife is a combination of Alice Cramden and vintage Shelley Winters. She's too angry to give Paul sympathy but too insecure to "get free." The other members of the 11-member cast make the most of their smaller roles--especially Peter Jacobson who we thought fine in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, somewhat less so in Rhinoceros, and better than fine here as a manic composer of maniacal lyrics.
One small part worth special attention is that of the window washer. When we started our new quote feature, "Quotes By and About the Theater World's Famous and Infamous" we included the above-cited Kaufman quote about satire and included a comment about how Kaufman wrote in a character's whose sole appearance and purpose is to support a sight gag--something no theater in today's economy could afford to do. ( Quotations By and About the Theater's Famous and Infamous.. Director Nelson has cleverly kept this bit of business intact by assigning the role to the show's musical director Robert Lamont. And guess what? That gag still brings down the house!
Apropos of that gag, there's an inventive and wonderfully versatile set by Bill Clarke--with a back panel that converts to a view from the Sears' upper west side living room and to the Hart office with its large half-moon for the window for the window washer shtick. Also contributing mightily to the visual pleasures of this June Moon are Jonathan Bixby's fabulous and fun jazz age clothes. This is the period when the fur-trimmed coats which are this winter's big seen-everywhere fashion came into vogue, so it should come as no surprise that all the major players sport at least one fur-collared coat. Kirk Bookman's lighting design is also praiseworthy.
In closing, with all the talk about high ticket prices sending potential and former theater goers to the local multiplex, Drama Dept. is to be commended for bringing us an enjoyable show with sound production values and a stellar cast priced at $12. The Ohio Theatre, which is a temporary space rented for June Moon's limited run (to January 19th), is ideally located to experience the special pleasures of going to the theater in an off-off-Broadway location. © January, 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.