June Moon by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Jesse Berger.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"GOSH!! Then I been goiní around all this time with a bad woman?"
Innocence isnít what it used to be, at least I donít think it is. In 1929 when George s. Kaufman worked with Ring Lardner to adapt his short story "Some Like ĎEm Cold," into a play there were definitely innocent men and women, people who had no true comprehension of the world and what it contained. This play, one of the big hits of the 1929-1930 season with 273 performances, featured some very innocent types caught in a typical New York City trap from which it would seem there was no way out. Of course with true innocents there is always a last minute realization and a loud questioning of morals. At least in a comedy...and that is what the Dorset Theatre Festival is presenting for its final entry of the season.
The season that brought this show onto the scene was a pretty exciting one, and one of the busiest Broadway had ever known. Jimmy Durante and Ruby Keeler starred in "Show Girl" by the Gershwins, Dorothy and DuBose Heywardís play, "Porgy" had been produced by the Theatre Guild, Gertrude Lawrence and Leslie Howard were in "Candle Light" - a play which would soon spawn a hit Cole Porter musical, and George S. Kaufman had at least two more plays in preparation to open that season. Bette Davis made her Broadway debut in a light comedy, Noel Cowardís "Bitter Sweet" was about to open and "Death Takes a Holiday" would follow shortly and all of this before the turn of the year, just the first half of the season.
"June Moon" was one of the big hits. It struck a chord with audiences because of its central characters, Fred Stevens and Edna Baker, two innocents abroad. These two still hold center stage in the current production in Vermont.
Fred is a GE clerk who has decided to go to New York and be a lyric writer for popular songs. Edna is a dental assistant to a big city D.D. who seems to only have a male clientele. These two meet on the train from Albany and strike up a friendship that soon blossoms into love for her and fondness for him. As his star rises in the Tin Pan Alley milieu in which he begins traveling, her star diminishes for him. He is swept away by the glamour of is writing partnerís sister-in-law, a gold-digger from way back. It is only last minute revelations about her character that save him from "a fate worse than death" and restore him to his senses and to the little girl he truly loves. Without telling you too much, thatís the story.
The playwrights have a way with words that I wonít try to emulate here. The quirkiness of the American language in that period is half the fun and the other half is a superb cast under the eye of a director who knows how not to parody a period, but how to recreate it effectively. The two authors cleverly drew their characters from living models, and even the big hit song that Fred creates in Act One, also called "June Moon" came from the pens of the playwrights: the sheet music cover reads "Words and Music overheard by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman" (on the inside page that is changed to "Eavesdropped by...").
Spencer Moses, tall, lanky, boyish, is a wonderful Fred. He handles the upstate educated language of the character with a naturalness that makes its awkward phrasings as real as possible. He has a charm that lends itself perfectly to such a period-placed fellow and his constant enthusiasm gives him license to use phrases such as "I get dizzy if I climb a ladder" when someone suggests that they go for a treat to the St. Regis Roof, a nightclub. Moses handles such things with simplicity and honesty and it works just the way author Kaufman expected it would.
Clearly Mosesí equal in this sort of playing is Larissa Goldberg as Edna. Unseen between the prologue on the train and the middle of the second act, she brings her ingenue qualities back into the play at just the right moment. Fred is caught by a temptress and Edna doesnít know about it, and her enthusiasm for him is just the right note at the right moment. Goldberg also embodies her character. Hearing about Eileen, the "other woman", Edna remarks in a sweet and not sarcastic manner "Oh Fred, you want to be careful! Because you take a woman like she, thatís close to forty or moreó" and Goldberg makes it a warning that has a classic sweetness. As she plays this young woman, Goldberg simply begs to be hugged without saying a word. Itís a lovely performance.
Paul Sears, the composer, is played with finesse and a period physicality by Brit Whittle. His wife Lucille is nicely portrayed by Carol Halstead and her sister Eileen - no connection to any other sister Eileen - is put on the map by Mary Bacon. All three have a loose sophistication that begs laughter in their baser moments.
Mark Alhadeff is a funny Maxie, a piano-playing song-plugger with a collection of wisecracks that are guaranteed to get at least a hearty snicker. His tendency to imitate Groucho Marx was a bit overdone at times, but he carries off the character nicely otherwise. Teresa Stephenson plays a wonderful Goldie, the music publisherís secretary. Erin Timony Bump was a bit overboard as Miss Rixey.
In a very nice bit in Act Two, Curran Connor plays an amusing Window Cleaner and Ian Lowe plays Benny, the songwriter, with enthusiasm, grand comic timing and constant stop and go foot pattern that gets the laugh every time.
Nicely directed with an understanding of the Kaufman style by Jesse Berger, this show takes a while to get going into the comedy it naturally becomes. The sweetness of the romance established in the opening scene makes the comedy a bit more difficult, but an indulgent audience will get the jokes in time to make this an enjoyable performance.
David Barberís sets are wonderfully right for the play as are the costumes provided by Sara Jean Tosetti, particularly the red dress worn by Lucille in the Third Act and all of Edna costumes. Josh Bradford has done a fine job lighting this play.
The Kaufman project, a goal of artistic director, Carl Forsman, is off to a grand new beginning with this production and promises more wonderful light comedy in the future. Treat yourself to a taste of 1929, just before the stock market crashed, and sing along with the songwriters: "Sweet night bird, winging aloft, singing a soft love tune..."
Spencer Moses and Larissa Goldberg; photo: Harry Lee
Mark Alhadeff and Brit Whittle; photo: Harry Lee
Moses, Mary Bacon, Whittle, Carol Halstead; photo: Harry Lee
June Moon plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont through August 30. For performance schedules and tickets call the box office at 802-867-5777 or go their website at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.