It’s debatable whether the Geffen Playhouse ought to be resurrecting old George S. Kaufman comedies, but regardless, director John Rando’s deft new production emerges as a model of how to do it. Under Rando’s clever and omnipresent hand, Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s 1922 Hollywood sendup comes off as fresh, funny and heartwarming. High technical standards and an outstanding turn by the almost criminally beguiling Barry Del Sherman, as the eponymous Merton, insure that theatergoers will exit smiling.
Kaufman and Connelly weren’t exactly subtle when it came to plot — boy dreams of Hollywood, boy goes to Hollywood, boy becomes a success in Hollywood — and so “Merton” has longueurs that even Rando can’t hide. Yet the helmer camouflages the play’s dull spots by keeping activity onstage ever in flux. Some charming touches, like period music, silent-movie title-card projections and working klieg lights, also help keep our minds off the work’s shortcomings.
But the laughs are real and honest — no one ever questioned Kaufman’s or Connelly’s ear for dialogue — and Rando has pumped his cast full of infectious vim. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when actors are told to play broad. Nothing succeeds like excess and all that.
The play opens in a small Illinois hamlet where Merton, who works in a general store owned by Amos Gashwiler (vet thesp Eugene Roche), pines away for a Photoplay life. Soon enough, he moves to Hollywood and gets a shot at it, thanks to an ostensibly crabby casting director (Meagen Fay in a superbly droll perf) and a stunt double known as the Montague Girl (Heidi Mokrycki).
But Merton screws up his lucky break (in a slapstick scene brilliantly directed by Rando), and only dogged determination keeps him form returning to the Heartland. Later, an even luckier break affords Merton the second chance few in Hollywood ever get, and the play’s conclusion, never in doubt, finds Merton, a few snooty ideals shattered, content and successful.
With a Merton less guileless than Sherman, Rando’s carefully calibrated effort still might not work, but that’s a moot point, for Sherman is everything Merton should be: callow, sympathetic, slightly ridiculous and deadly earnest. The actor’s limber limbs add a welcome physical-comedy component, and his ability to alter his voice on a dime provides further opportunities for laughs.
Sherman is supported not just by the able Mokrycki, sounding like a young Katharine Hepburn, but also by such fine thesps as Jim Fyfe (playing a trio of goofy characters), Lucy Lee Flippin (an awkward hometown neighbor and busybody Hollywood landlady), Don Lee Sparks (a pompous drunken actor), David Garrison (a nervous director of features) and Richard Libertini (a free-spirited director of comedies).
A superb tech team furthers the achievements of Rando and his cast. Kent Dorsey’s sets prove evocative and flexible, integrating seamlessly into the action. And Jonathan Bixby’s sensible yet inventive costumes also serve the cause well; a few of the show’s funniest moments belong to the costumer. But Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting and Jon Gottlieb’s sound design are even more integral to this show’s success. Thanks to them, soundstages seem like just that, and the Geffen itself feels like an old-time moviehouse.