George S. Kaufman had a rare solo hit with this 1925 outing lampooning the follies of “the show biz.” The genial backstage comedy retains a fair amount of its pizzazz three quarters of a century later, even in a staging from the Atlantic Theater Co. that’s not quite dairy-fresh. This one’s mostly for aficionados of old legit.
Setup has Joe Lehman (Tom Mardirosian), an ex-vaude agent desperate to break into legit producing, foaming at the mouth for lack of funds for what is sure to be a socko show. His partner Jack McClure (Michael McGrath) goes scouting for a “butter and egg man” — somebody from the sticks with more money than sense, also known as an investor.
Joe fends off the sarcasms of his smugly disapproving wife, Fanny, played to the hard-bitten hilt by Julie Halston, who slings the period slang with style, as well as the insults of his has-been leading lady Mary McMartin (it was Mary Martin in the original — who knew?). That dame’s threatening to walk.
Enter Joe’s savior, Peter Jones (David Turner), a rube from Ohio so naive even his seersucker is green (a witty touch from excessively named costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II, whose work is mostly tops). After a big song and dance from Jack and Joe, Peter pops for the coin, kicking in 20 grand of the 22 he just inherited — mostly because he likes the look of comely assistant Jane Weston (Rosemarie Dewitt).
Things go pretty wrong before they get righted again in time for the curtain, with Jane and Peter outwitting the scheming producers and heading back to Ohio with a bag of dough.
Things don’t always go so swimmingly with David Pittu’s production, either. Perfs are all over the map. And there are some flat patches that strip the gears during the comic setpieces, such as the raucous get-together in the Syracuse hotel room during which everyone tries to hash out the play’s problems. (With minimal space to work with, set designer Anna Louizos comes up with some fine work.)
Mardirosian is a little too much the heavy as Joe, but he and McGrath, who’s on the money in a less showy role, get a nice rapport going during their big sales pitch. John Ellison Conlee, a bear-sized, baby-faced fellow, is a pip as Fritchie, the assistant hotel manager who kicks in his own dough when Peter buys out his partners and takes over the show. David Brummel nails the period style in an in-and-out appearance, and Robin Skye gets her laughs as a blowsy dame whose gimlet glare could wipe the chenille off a bedspread.
Best of all is Turner’s turn as the hayseed Peter. He’s got a buttery complexion, a fine aw-shucks accent and an endearingly eager ear-to-ear grin, and he never lets the mask of homespun heartiness drop. Peter’s honesty is only slightly sullied when, after witnessing the disastrous first night, he avows the show was “all right, except — here and there, maybe.”
Same goes for this one.