Tuesday, December 8, 2009

So Help Me God!


By Maurine Dallas Watkins. Directed by Jonathan Bank. Lucille Lortel Theatre. (CL0SED)

With the exception of Talk Entertainment's Oscar E. Moore and CurtainUp's Simon Saltzman, critics are grateful to the Mint Theater Company for unearthing the backstage comedy So Help Me God! by Maurine Dallas Watkins. While acknowledging some of the play's faults, critics rave about Kristen Johnston's performance as diva Lily Darnley. Though some of the material may be a little dated, critics are sometimes surprised to find how well it holds up. Backstage's Erik Haagensen notes that a conversation about the difficulty of producing serious work on Broadway to the costs is particularly resonant.

TheaterMania A+
(Barbara & Scott Siegel) One of the many victims of the stock market crash of 1929 was the Broadway-bound production of a backstage comedy by Maurine Dallas Watkins (who had earlier written the hit 1926 play Chicago) that never made it to New York. Well, better later than never. The Mint Theater, which has so often in the past discovered lost theatrical gems, has outdone itself by finally producing So Help Me God!, now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, starring the hilarious Kristen Johnston and directed by Jonathan Bank. The result is a backstage comedy with so much bite you can almost see the blood.

Backstage A
(Erik Haagensen) Bart describes Lily as having "the face of Little Eva and the heart of Simon Legree," and, happily, Kristen Johnston delivers all that and more. She is a symphony of mood swings: melodrama, insincerity, hunger, lust, saintliness, frivolity, and cruelty being just a few. It's a grand creation that Johnston nevertheless keeps anchored in honest emotion, which leads to a startling moment in Act 3 when Lily dispatches her insurgent understudy: "Nobody ever gave me anything! I fought my way up—every inch of the way," snarls Lily. Johnston does it with such sudden feeling that we understand in one moment exactly how Lily became the monster she is. Under Jonathan Banks' rapid-fire direction, the other 15 members of the company support Johnston ably.

NY Post A
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) The egomaniacal, manipulative Lily is a larger-than-life diva -- a perfect fit for the towering Johnston ("3rd Rock From the Sun," "The Skin of Our Teeth"), who takes up a lot of space. Sheathed in Clint Ramos' stylish period gowns, her alabaster skin emitting an almost radioactive glow, the actress goes whole hog and gives Lily a wonderfully demented dimension. She does amazing things with her eyes, for instance, narrowing them in fury or looking heavenward as if desperately searching for divine inspiration.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) The backstage farce, which predates "All About Eve" by decades, is a knowing, snappy, tough little show-biz trifle. The Mint Theatre, that Off-Broadway haven of lost-play archaeology, has achieved a vivacious resuscitation, and given Kristen Johnston the chance to discover her inner egomaniacal glamour-puss.

The New York Times A-
(Ben Brantley) Ms. Watkins, who had covered murder trials for The Chicago Tribune, brings a journalist’s eye for the compromising detail to this business we call show. (Her portrayal of the working styles of two directors of quite different sensibilities is specific and hilarious.) But she also had a playwright’s musical ear for trade lingo and period slang that rivals that of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in “The Front Page.” Here’s Belle (Catherine Curtin), a blowsy character actress, as rehearsals begin: “Honest, I’m so nervous I need a new brassiere.” And here’s Lily, explaining to her press agent exactly how the reviews should read regarding everyone else in the cast: “All they should say is, ‘Miss Darnley was ably supported.’" Ms. Johnston, may I say, is ably supported. Actors love few things more than portraying ego-driven actors and their swinish associates, and the cast members here inhabit their roles with zest and, more surprisingly, unforced credibility. No one goes over the top, except Ms. Johnston, and how could she not? She’s Lily Darnley, a gorgeous megalomaniac who combines the less attractive features of Margo Channing and Norma Desmond.

Time Out New York A-
(Adam Feldman) As the ego-, nympho- and dipsomaniacal diva at the nucleus of So Help Me God!, Kristen Johnston is a marvel. Her Amazonian frame sheathed in designer Clint Ramos’s splendid gowns and furs, she speaks in a voice of poisoned honey, occasionally coughing out a husky little chortle. (She laughs all the way to the Bankhead.) The character is Lily Darnley, a Broadway glamour-puss who clings to center stage with sharp, bloodied claws; and Johnston takes her tasty lemon drop of a role and sucks it for all it’s worth.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) Because the play isn't as subtle or as biting in its satire of theatre creatures as Chicago was criminals, focusing on the comedy probably helps buoy the show against unruly tides. Other problems remain, however. Bank has admitted to editing the play for modern delicacy, but he allows only one intermission (the play obviously calls for two), which makes the second, final, and most important change of Bill Clarke's modest backstage-and-hotel set take an uncomfortably long time. And the third act makes so little sense, one can only wonder whether Bank, like Lily, excised too much. But in either case, is it that important? Lily would argue that the final product pleasing is all that counts, and she'd probably be right. Bank's final product is an intensely interesting excavation, a sparkling and original comedy from one of Broadway's most underrepresented voices, and worth hearing for that reason. It's also fascinating as a precursor to All About Eve, which it resembles more than slightly. Even so, So Help Me God! has enough unique fire and music to stand as worthy enough on its own.

The Faster Times B+
(Jonathan Mandell) In short, there is no question that “So Help Me God!” is a theatrical find – a revelation! — and the Mint Theater Company was duty-bound by all that remains sacred and seductive in the theater to bring it… finally… to the stage. But what is the actual experience of watching the play? It is a divine diva-thon, a barbed backstage comedy, “A Royal Family” on crack, a “42nd Street” spiked with the cynicism of “The Producers”…if you fall asleep during the dull patches. With a cast of 15 (not including the little lap dog) there was just too much theatrical goings-on for me to absorb.

Lighting & Sound America B
(David Barbour) It would be lovely to say that So Help Me God! is thoroughly worthy of [Johnston], but, in the words of those critics, the star is not always ably supported. This lost work by Maurine Dallas Watkins, author of Chicago (the source material for the musical) is a standard backstage farce of the period (1928), peopled with cardboard cutouts and distinguished largely by a diamond-hard distaste for the hustlers and money-grubbers of the Great White Way. It's loaded with characters and subplots, all of whom come and go at a frantic rate; the one real conflict, involving a starstruck mouse from Cincinnati who grows a few claws after appearing opposite Lily, isn't all that interesting, despite the fine work of Anna Chlumsky as the aspirant with Klieg lights in her eyes. Several promising situations are brought up, then dropped, as Lily is basically allowed to run amok for three acts. (It would be instructive to see The Royal Family and So Help Me God! in the same day; the contrast between Watkins' pedestrian construction and low-down gags and Kaufman and Ferber's pristine high comedy would hardly be flattering.)

Entertainment Weekly B
(Jessica Shaw) Written by Maurine Watkins in 1929, So Help Me God! had all but been forgotten until the Mint Theater Company’s director, Jonathan Bank, found it when searching for abandoned plays. It had been headed to Broadway in 1929 until the unfortunate timing of a rewrite request and the stock market crash. Though the current production’s first half has plenty of sharp and witty moments, you have to wonder if the revises requested back in 1929 could have helped the sluggish second act.

The Village Voice C+
(Michael Feingold) Under Jonathan Bank's direction, Kristen Johnston and Anna Chlumsky, neither one perfectly cast, make a good game try at the roles of manic star and idealistic understudy. Some of the supporting actors catch on to the comic angles, and Kraig Swartz, too briefly, gets great laughs as a ninnyish director who sounds like a prequel to The Producers' Roger DeBris.

CurtainUp C-
(Simon Saltzman) 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.

Talk Entertainment D-
(Oscar E. Moore) Thinking they had found another “Chicago” a play written by the eccentric Maurine Dallas Watkins while a student at Yale in 1926 upon which the long running hit musical is based the Mint Theater has resurrected “So Help Me God!” written in 1928-29 - a long lost, found in a drawer farce written by the very same playwright. It’s gotten a bit moldy sitting in that drawer all these years. Despite the cuts made by director, Jonathan Bank we get creaky where sleek is called for. What should be fast, frothy and ebullient isn’t. The history of how Bob Fosse eventually got the rights to “Chicago” and the bizarre life that Ms. Watkins lived which is noted in the Playbill is far more interesting than the predictable central casting antics on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre where “So Help Me God!” is playing. Sometimes you find a treasure and sometimes the treasure chest comes up empty and in the case of this never produced until now comedy - half full.

TheaterMania A+ 14; Backstage A 13; NY Post A 13; Newsday A 13; The New York Times A- 12; TONY A- 12; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; The Faster Times B+ 11; Lighting & Sound America B 10; EW B 10; The Village Voice C+ 7; CurtainUp C- 6; Talk Entertainment D- 3; TOTAL: 136/13 = 10.46 (B)

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