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A CurtainUp Review
So Help Me God!

I appreciater all you've done, Mr. Jason.— Herrick the author who's upset at all the changes he's being forced to make.

. . .you don't appreciate nothing. I've never seen an author yet that did. You give 'em one of the biggest stars in the country and a supporting cast that's second to none-- and what do you get-- 'you've ruined my play, my beautiful play!' Gott im Himmel, you haven't GOT a play! If the audience won't sit through itk, it ain't a play. And last night they walked out. . . —Jason
Anna Chumsky and Kristen Johnston in So Help Me G
Anna Chumsky and Kristen Johnston in So Help Me God
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Theatergoers who flocked to The Royal Family, the zany 1927comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber that spoofed the celebrated acting clan, the Barrymores, can continue their fascination and adoration of larger-than-life thespians by attending So Help Me God! the largely unknown 1929 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. While the antics and assignations of The Royal Family were rooted in reality, there is no such consideration in evidence in the trail of absurdities that propel So Help Me God! This play was abandoned by its producers with the advent of the Depression during its out-of-town tryout while in preparation for its scheduled Broadway opening.

For those of you who feel that perhaps one of the gems of dramatic literature was lost forever, this isn't the time to start salivating. Famous for its revivals, resurrections and restorations of forgotten but worthy plays of yore, the Mint Theater Company is currently taking a rather audacious leap into the more adventurous realm of the not-only-forgotten but the not- quite-good-enough-to-withstand-the-test-of-time genre. All the transparencies and cliches that would eventually define the theater world would be more insightfully and humorously refined by other theater scribes.

Does this mean that the playwright who created a stir with her first success Chicago in 1927 (subsequently turned into the hit musical of the same name) couldn’t follow it up with something quite as provocative or pithy? The answer: apparently no and didn’t, although there are moments to savor and laugh at in this tumultuous back-stage farce. Ms. Watkins did enjoy success in the 1930s and 40s writing screwball screenplays in Hollywood, but So Help Me God! shows the stretch marks of a play that is too utterly absurd and implausible for its own good. Whatever liveliness the play has is due to the direction of Jonathan Bank, who, when the dialogue fails to amuse (which is too often) keeps the large and fine cast in a state of commiserating frenzy and/or panic.

It is hard not to take some delight in the self-serving machinations of an egotistical, bitchy, unlovable, alcoholic Broadway diva. Lily Darnley is she who cannot be either disobeyed or upstaged, and it is for Kristen Johnston to resuscitate this carnivorous creature of our theatrical past, or at least we hope. Notwithstanding the shades of Tallulah Bankhead that hover over and around Johnston’s portrayal, it is safe to say that her acid-based performance is also well grounded in all the grand poses and grotesque posturing that one might expect (or is it fear?). And what is it that Lily wants and must have, that thing that drives her and the plot?

It is two weeks before the out-of-town opening, but Lily wants George Herrick (Ned Noyes), the easily intimidated author to completely re-write her role and, indeed, much of the play to suit her whims and the expectations of her fans. She also has hatched a devious plan to replace juvenile lead Jules Meredith (Kevin O’Donnell) with Desmond Armstrong (Matthew Waterson) her lover cum pompous British actor with an ego that proves to be as big if not bigger than Lily’s.

But what about Kerren-Heppuch Lane (Anna Chlumsky) Lily’s perky understudy wants. . . besides Jules? Do we have the forerunner of Eve Harrington amongst us? With a growing list of stage and screen credits, Chlumsky is not quite as formidable a presence on stage as is Johnston. But she asserts herself in a comical climactic scene in which she and Johnston face off with both wearing identical gowns (don't ask). It is here that she ignites and gives us a delightful look at a star in the making. Thirty years later, All About Eve’s aging Broadway star Margo Channing would prove to be a pussycat compared to Lily. But what’s in a name? Lily is also the name that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur would pick for their tempestuous/incorrigible Broadway diva in their 1932 hit Twentieth Century.

Johnston, who is famously known for her role in the hit TV series Third Rock From the Sun, but whose New York stage appearances have also been notable, not only towers physically above almost everyone in the cast but also manages to devour them all from the first inane day of rehearsal through the mangled out-of-town tryout to the chaotic opening night in New York. Most of the cast of 16 have made their entrances and established who they are within the company long before Johnston’s star entrance. There is no doubt that she, in the long white ermine fur and carrying a cute little Yorkie in her palm, is what we have been waiting for.

Among the impression-making supporting roles, Allen Lewis Rickman bellows as needed as the producer while Brad Bellamy and Kraig Swartz, as the directors, Peter Van Wagner, as the press agent and Jeremy Lawrence, as the stage manager, appear seasoned for survival. Through no fault of her own, Catherine Curtin plays Belle, the tipsy comic relief character, without supplying much comic relief.

What fun there is comes as the increasingly alarmed and discontented actors fight to salvage their roles. There’s a bracing and very funny reality behind leading man Bart Henley (as played with delicious hubris by John G. Preston) as he begs the author, "But if you let these guys — especially the star— begin cutting and slashing, you’re ruined. Now, if you take my advice you won’t touch this part – except maybe to build him up a little in spots." If only the play had more touches of actors’ frailties, we might have been more inclined to care about these otherwise transparent characters. If I was inclined to care about anyone it would be Blake, the put-upon and harried stage manager, as disarmingly played by Jeremy Lawrence. This actor, who was so memorable as a member of parliament in the Mint production of Is life Worth Living? gives another terrific performance.

The back stage and dressing room area of a theater and an Art Deco hotel suite are nicely evoked by set designer Bill Clarke and lighting designer Robert Wierzel. Costume Designer Clint Ramos defines the era as expected. Although the intrusive "Que Sera Sera," a 1960 pop song played between the acts defies comprehension, but so does much of the play. Nevertheless, it behooves those who like to wallow in this kind of theatrical foolishness to make a bee-line for the Lucille Lortel Theater.

Editor's Note: Since Simon had such high praise for this production's harried stage manager, Jeremy Lawrence, it's worth mentioning that Kristen Johnston herself gave a fine performance as a stage manager when she took over for the otherwise engaged Julie White during the summer '08 Williamstown Theatre Festival premiere of Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy. Also, while not credited in the program, a New York Times background piece on the show stated there are actually two Yorkies who take turns as Lily's dog Frou-Frou and thtat their off-stage names are Velma and Roxie in honor of the leads in Watkins' more famous play.

So Help Me Godby Maurine Dallas Watkins
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Cast: Kristen Johnston (Lily), Anna Chlumsky (Karen Hepuch-Lane, Lily's understudy) with Brad Bellamy (Dave Hobart, director in Act 1) , Catherine Curtin (Belle) , Amy Fitts (Eloise, maid and dresser) , Jeremy Lawrence (Blake, stage manager) , Ned Noyes (George Herrick, author) , Kevin O’Donnell (Jules Meredith) , John G. Preston (Bart Henley) , Allen Lewis Rickman (Moses Jason, Lily's producer) , Kraig Swartz (Glenn, director in Act 2) , Peter Van Wagner (Goby, Lily's press agent) , Matthew Waterson (Desmond Armstrong) , Margot White (Judith Hudson), John Windsor-Cunningham (Mr. Chester Burleigh) .
Scenic design: Bill Clarke
Costume design: Clint Ramos
Lighting design: Robert Wierzel
Sound design: by Jane Shaw
Properties: Deborah Gaouette
Hair and Makeup: Jan Carter
Stage Manager: Samane B. Weissman
Lucille Lortel Theatre 121 Christopher Streetr 212/279-4200
Tuesday through Thursday at 7 PM, Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM.
Tickets are $55.
From 11/18/09; opening 12/07/09; closing 12/20/09.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on December 3rd press preview
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