This review was corrected June 11, 2003.
First seen on Broadway in December 1931, English playwright Benn Levy’s sex comedy “Springtime for Henry” provided welcome light relief from the Depression and was revived on Broadway in 1933 and again in 1951. Now it’s been revived by Boston’s resident Huntington with the avowed hope that it will relieve our current depression, with or without a capital D. It is indeed light, even frivolous. But it’s also fun and, at its best, as when the quips are flying, it brings to mind Coward and Wilde.
“Springtime for Henry” is best known as a long-running vehicle for farceur Edward Everett Horton, who first played its title role in California in 1932 and continued to play it across the country for more than 25 years, including in the ’51 Broadway revival. Henry Dewlip may have been created on Broadway by Leslie Banks, but to hundreds of thousands of American theatergoers of a certain age, Henry is Horton.
The Huntington’s Henry is Christopher Fitzgerald. He and co-star Jeremy Shamos (who plays dim best friend Mr. Jelliwell) are fresh from director Nicholas Martin’s altogether more serious production of “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.” Both have the right overgrown schoolboy quality the play calls for, and they deliver performances full of brio, gusto, speed and physical agility.
To Fitzgerald’s credit, he doesn’t allow Shamos to steal the play. In the Nigel Bruce role of a man whose wife has been having an affair with Henry for some time, and who is most upset when Henry halts it, Shamos is a dizzy delight.
Which doesn’t mean Fitzgerald doesn’t have a fine comic time of it, starting with a quick change onstage from gaudy pajamas to full playboy regalia, including cravat. It’s just that Mr. Jelliwell is the play’s most amusing character.
Jessica Stone has the right baby-doll look and voice as Miss Smith, the new secretary who “reforms” gambling, drinking, womanizing Henry and almost pries him away from Mrs. Jelliwell (a glamorous and deftly comic Mia Barron). But that’s before he learns “Miss Smith” has been married and has a child, though no longer a husband, for hilarious if morally questionable reasons.
Along the way the dialogue runs to such trifles as “I’m playing the gramophone; I play it rather well” and “I want some tea — mar-tea-ni.” And when Henry and Miss Smith are about to go to the theater together, we’re told that the play is “Three Sisters in Search of a Character.” Naturally there’s a bitchy scene between the two women, and everything’s very anyone for tennis, with the sexual nature of the goings-on simply taken for granted.
The physical production is gorgeous, notably James Noone’s yellow-and-white London apartment setting with its classical detailing and stuffed animal heads. Michael Krass’ costumes, shoes and hairdos are strictly in period (though Henry’s trousers probably wouldn’t have had a zipper). And period songs are used, effectively starting with “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” and including “I’ve Put All My Eggs in One Basket” and “Let’s Misbehave.”
The only miscalculation in Martin’s souffle of a production is a weird dance number for the Jelliwells that covers the time needed between what were originally acts two and three for some costume changes. It’s heralded by a great gust of smoke issuing with the Jelliwells from Henry’s offstage bedroom and it’s very odd, indeed, complete with a vast ostrich-feather fan. Still, it does nothing to hide the fact that Levy knew a thing or two about writing farcical comedy and that Martin and his quartet of players thoroughly enjoy reveling in it, as does the audience.