You’ve got to love a show in which the star gets to say, “I’m going to be a lady, goddamnit, or the play can go straight to hell!” But having the wit to resurrect a gem like Maureen Dallas Watkins’ “So Help Me God!” — wit that the Mint Theater has in spades — does not guarantee a successful revival. Nabbing a skilled comedian like Kristen Johnston for the lead doesn’t earn you a free pass, either. The prize goes to the revivalist who can access his inner George Abbott, a skill that manifestly eludes helmer Jonathan Bank here.
Johnston was clearly born to play Lily Darnley, the egomaniacal diva who wreaks havoc on the “social comedy” in rehearsal at Broadway’s Regent Theater for a fall 1926 opening. Big and blonde and taller than a goddess, Johnston isn’t shy about throwing all that good stuff around the stage.
Whenever she’s functioning at full force — slamming doors, swanning around in furs, bullying directors, firing supporting actors, dictating script changes to the spineless playwright, and otherwise browbeating the cowering company ruled by her every whim — this revival is on track. Johnston is not afraid to take chances and she doesn’t mind looking foolish. But this highly physical actress also comes equipped with a good brain, which is largely unchallenged by both play and production.
The problem with the comedy is that Watkins (best known for the original play that inspired the musical “Chicago”) doesn’t provide this fabulous monster with a decent foil.
What Lily needs is a clever little viper like Eve Harrington (astonishingly, the play predates “All About Eve” by 20 years). What she gets is Kerry Lane, a one-dimensional ingenue from the Midwest (given a one-dimensional reading by Anna Chlumsky) who is maddeningly obtuse about what goes into a Broadway show and painfully slow to recognize that she can play this game, too.
The rest of the characters in this heavily populated satire are wallpaper — stock figures played with wildly uneven results by a game but seemingly unguided ensemble. Constrained by a company style that goes for broad comedy and frequently borders on hysteria, individual performers cling to whatever shtick seems to work for them.
The ever-reliable Jeremy Lawrence hits his mark as pragmatic company stage manager Blake, who goes about his business with hilarious commitment to whichever creative genius happens to be yanking his chain at that moment. Such concentration in the midst of meltdown perfectly captures the ineffable quality that makes a good stage manager worth his weight in gold.
Allen Lewis Rickman stands his ground as Mose Jason, the beleaguered producer who has to navigate this turkey through the shoals of a two-week Philadelphia tryout. Ned Noyes cringes nicely as the poor playwright watching his work disintegrate before his very eyes.
And John G. Preston and John Windsor-Cunningham maintain their comic dignity as character actors who need the work so badly they will find a way to bury their dead without losing more than a half-day of rehearsal.
The women, on the other hand, tend to go overboard in their characterizations. Accents too heavy. Voices too loud. Gestures too broad. One can sympathize with their frustration, but too much is less.
Let it be said, though, that the show looks good. Bill Clarke’s sets make bold statements and Deborah Gaouette worked hard on those period props. Clint Ramos’ costumes also capture the surreal feeling of the day, a madcap era when people were dancing obliviously on the edge of a precipice that would give way in the stock market crash.
Just don’t expect any subtle intimations of disaster in this irony-free production. It’s just not that kind of a show, more’s the pity.