Looking like Barton Fink and hand-washing like Lady Macbeth, Frank Ferrante’s George S. Kaufman stalks the stage, reviewing his life in one-liners, barking them out like an old-time radio announcer, worrying that his new show, “Solid Gold Cadillac,” will flop. “By George” is an homage to the Broadway legend, but this solo bio-drama is more a testimony to the actor/writer’s admiration than a dramatization of his subject.
With the recent revival of “June Moon,” there may be new interest in Kaufman, but one of this show’s problems is that if you don’t come in knowing the legend, “By George” won’t convince you that George S. Kaufman was worth such attention. If you do know the legend, the show won’t give you much more than an encyclopedia article. There are constant references to names that will mystify all but musical-theater history devotees. And the pivotal, life-altering scandals seem both tame and pointless: Does anybody under 60 know or care who Mary Astor was? Is Kaufman’s constant Hollywood philandering of any consequence to people who have never heard of these stars?
As a member of the Vicious Circle, the wits who schmoozed at the Algonquin’s round table, Ferrante’s Kaufman quotes himself far too often, with droll looks and weighty pauses for our appreciation. If one-liners depend for their zing on their spontaneity, the quickness of the rejoinder, then quoting the oldies almost ensures they’ll fall flat. Since Kaufman is alone before us (whether he is actually reminiscing is unclear — there is no real device to animate the show’s occasion), it looks as if he’s simply parading self-satisfaction before us.
The monologue does try to provide some psychological insight, making his shadowy, over-protective and grief-stricken mother the cause of Kaufman’s neurotic handwashings, face-clutchings and self-lacerating, self-justifying guilts. We see that his life was deeply altered both by being fired from his Washington newspaper job (“What’s that Jew doing in my city room?”) and by the stillbirth of his first child, but it is never quite convincing to assign specific causes for a peculiar person’s peculiarities. In any case, this is less a play than a fan letter.