Preston Sturges’ unproduced Depression-era comedy, later adapted to the 1940 film “Christmas in July” with Dick Powell, has many rough edges and slow spots but still sustains the trademark characters and moral concerns of its author.
The play is set in the Lower East Side coffee warehouse of Baxter’s Best Coffee, which is nominally presided over by the failing patriarch, Ephraim Baxter (Robert Cornthwaite), but run by his two sons, J. Bloodgood (Raye Birk) and Oliver (David Cromwell).
The year is 1931, and Baxter’s Coffee has fallen on hard times. Salesman Jimmy MacDonald (Michael Heintzman), secretary Tulip Jones (Angie Phillips), office manager Lomax Whortleberry (George Ede) and general factotum Julius Smith (Willie Carpenter) are grateful to have jobs but are anxious about the future.
Lo and behold, Jimmy enters a slogan contest with a competing coffee company and wins. Spirits soar at Baxter’s as Jimmy’s dreams seem to come true–he can marry Tulip, who has been champing at the bit waiting for a proposal, and use his sloganeering genius to raise Baxter’s from the sludge of the coffee wars.
The premise is characteristically thin, and the play is slow to get moving, as the characters and their relationships take their sweet time to develop. While the love story between Jimmy and Tulip is charming, it is not fleshed out. Most of the story is devoted to the family struggles over the coffee business, which do not have the obvious appeal of the two lovers’ story.
In the end, however, Sturges delivers the meat of the play–the moral crisis that Jimmy faces as his new-found fortune collapses around him. The brilliance of Sturges is in stretching his main character, in this case an ambitious young salesman, with the kind of moral dilemma that he has never confronted before. When Jimmy meets this challenge, he is rewarded in ways he never dreamed possible.
Although many audiences and critics regard the plays and movies of the ’30s and early ’40s as products of an age of innocence, Sturges’ work shows that they are quite the opposite–moral cries in the midst of a cynical and frightening wilderness.
Perhaps the popular “age of innocence” notion has clouded the vision of director Larry Carpenter, who has blunted some of the unmistakable Sturges edge in this production. Or perhaps Sturges himself had not yet found his stride in this early play. In any case, the production is plodding until near the end.
The acting is fine, although also it suffers from the production’s overall lack of sharp focus. Michael Heintzman is energetic but a little one-note in his portrayal of Jimmy. Angie Phillips, on the other hand, finds the deeper, more subtle colors of her very demanding character. Raye Birk is fine in several broadly comedic sections, and David Cromwell and Willie Carpenter in their more grounded characters. Robert Cornthwaite is also quietly convincing as the patriarch of the Baxter clan. Sets by Mark Wendland are particularly good.