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No Time For Comedy
This vein of mine is an anachronism. . .an overdrawn bank account. . . death is being rained from the sky on whole populations. . . What sort of world is this? And you expect me to sit in my room contriving stage situations for you to be witty in!
--- Gaylord (Gay) Easterbrook
Hope Chernov & Simon Brooking
Leslie Denniston & Simon Brooking
(Photo: Richard Termine)
In its latest fishing expedition for lost theatrical treasures the Mint Theater has caught in its net a 1939 drawing room comedy, No Time For Comedy. Its author, S. N. Behrman, has often been referred to as our American Noël Coward. Its central character is a playwright who finds it impossible to write the comedies that are his forte in the face of the portentous events facing the world in the late 1930s. Behrman's fictional playwright was his means for climbing off the horns of his own dilemma: how to justify his brittle society comedies to the side of him that cared deeply about what was happening on the world stage.

If the premise sounds especially timely, well, so it is. Behrman, who was a master of slick social comedies with sociological strings attached (think Coward crossed with Shaw), uses a marital triangle as a come-on for examining his questions about the relevancy of light entertainment in tragic times.

Behrman's fictional alter-ego, Gaymore (Gay) Easterbrook (Simon Brooking) is in one of his dry spells during which he's prone to angst-driven drinking binges (don't even try to keep a count of the cocktails consumed during the two and a half hours). With facism an ever more threatening cloud on the world horizon, coming up with a new frothy plot goes beyond the usual writer's block. It also makes him ripe for an attractive "Other Woman", Amanda (Hope Chernov) whose " passion for developing latent possibilties " dovetails with his current creative impotence. Unlike his actress wife Linda (Leslie Denniston), who expects him to get back on track with another comedy for her to act in, Amanda becomes the "builder-upper" who encourages him to write a play that puts wisdom before wit. That makes Linda the "breaker-downer". Unable to wean him from his new love and muse, Linda, in a desperate ploy, throws him into Amanda's arms and comes up with an alternative to the serious play written under Amanda's influence. It is the denouement of that as yet unfinished play that gives Behrman's play its clever up-in-the-air and with a twist of lemon ending.

Ken Paul's rather too leisurely pacing make the beginning involving an archetypal maid with a thick Irish accent (Diane Ciesla) less authentically old-fashioned than slow and dated. However, Behrman's dialogue, like a freshly uncorked fine champagne, still bubbles with enough witticisms that I could fill up a page with quotes. And the Mint's production, even without such star leads as Katharine Cornell and Laurence Olivier, who appeared in the Broadway original, affords an enjoyably authentic visit to a playwright whose words and ideas have survived the passing of this genre.

When Easterbrook finally shows up in Act One, the innuendo filled banter between him and Linda smartly sets up the eventual need to choose between the "tearer-down" wife and the "builder-upper" and wannabe replacement. But what really gets the first act moving is Linda's meeting with her rival's spouse, Philo Smith (Ted Pejovich), who comes calling to warn her of the danger to her marriage (and his). This dry, cynical anti-New Deal banker gets the crème-de-la-crème of the rich dialogue. Describing his wife as a "Lorelei with an intellectual patter " He explains her passion for developing latent possibilities: "When they are not there she invents them. Her first husband was a mediocre but amiable man whom she utterly ruined by persuading he was first-rate." When Linda protests that her husband is not mediocre he retorts "Then she will persuade him that he is profound."

Philo's character is further revealed through his anecdotal aside about how he countered his socially conscious Harvard son's charge that he's "a co-conspirator in an evil system" with "I'd be glad to run the revolution for him as soon as it was established. I said I was just a simple socialist rich man like George Bernard Shaw." His reason for not wanting his own marriage to end is that he can't spare the time from his hobby of compiling a History of Trade Routes up to 1700 and because "I shouldn't like to be divorced a second time. It gets to be undignified."

Though Behrman's words are the real stars of this revival, the actors are for the most part up to the demands of their roles. As I watched Leslie Denniston I was reminded of Rosalind Russell, the queen of madcap movie comedies -- and upon checking my movie guide, I discovered that, sure enough, Russell played Linda in the 1940 movie version. It's nice to have Amanda played straightforwardly by another attractive brunette, Hope Chernov, rather than typecast as a ditsy blonde with brains. Simon Brooking is a somewhat too blustery Gay. On the other hand, Ted Pejovich is ideally cast as the poker-faced Philo Smith .

As usual the Mint has given us a handsome production. Jayde Chabot has seen to it that the cast is appropriately and fetchingly dressed, complete with authentic and perky little feathered hats for the ladies. No doubt the Broadway show's design by the legendary Jo Mielziner was more elaborate but Tony Andrea has effectively converted one basic set into two elegant Manhattan living rooms. With a few prop changes, the scene shifts from the Easterbrook high-rise hotel apartment to the upstairs living room of the Smith townhouse, and back to the Easterbrook apartment -- both well stocked with the makings of the omnipresent drinks.

Come to think of it, unless Gay stops hitting the bottle with the fervor of a confirmed alcoholic, the winner in the battle for his affections may indeed be a loser, spending time at meetings for AA families. Which leads to a concluding caveat: If you take advantage of the free Scotch supplied as a gift to the Mint and its patrons to while away those two intermissions, you may be in too much of a boozy haze to catch some of Behrman's best barbs.

Playwright: S.N. Behrman
Directed by Kent Paul
Cast: Simon Brooking, Hope Chernov, Diane Ciesla, Leslie Denniston, Ted Pejovich, Shawn Sturnick, and Jason Summers.
Set Design: Tony Andrea
Prop Specialist: Judi Guralnick
Costume Design: Jayde Chabot
Lighting Design: Peter West
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Text Coach: Robert Neff Williams Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, includes 2 intermissions
Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd St (9th/8th)., 315-0231 or
3/19/02-4/07/02; opening 3/25/02
Tues., Wed., Thurs. at 7:00 Fri. & Sat. at 8:00 Sat. & Sun. at 2:00- $19 through 3/23, then $35.
Wednesday nights are Meet the Cast Nights!

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/23 press preview
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