Merton of the Movies by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Mark Emerson and Crystal Finn; photo: Harry Lee
"You’ve got pathos. . .and acting plus."
Ann McDonough as Mrs. Patterson; photo: Harry Lee
Merton Gill, native of Simbury, Illinois, is everyman, is us, is the American dreamer. Clerking in a drygoods store, all he wants out of life is to meet his favorite movie star, and maybe even become a movie star himself. Created in 1921 by playwrights Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman, Merton Gill succeeds where others fail, where we might fail, due to the intervention of true love and a few clever turns in the plot.
The play, produced in 1922, made a Broadway star out of Glenn Hunter who went on to star in the silent movie version in 1924. The show was filmed two more times, in 1932 with Stu Erwin and in 1945 with Red Skelton. The writing of this character, and of the play in general, is so good and so true to that American dream referred to above, that all three film versions were wonderfully accepted. People turn to "All About Eve’ for a film about the entertainment industry that takes a swing at how things work, but "Merton of the Movies" did it first and did it brilliantly.
On stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont, Merton has taken the stage again and taken it beautifully. Directed with stylish grace and power by Jonathan Silverstein and played with a period accuracy that shouts "1922" by a wonderful cast, this show is the best yet in the company’s series of plays by Kaufman. In fact, this show is as good as their version of "Theophilus North" two summers ago, and that was just short of brilliant.
At the center of what is so right about this performance is Merton Gill himself, played by Mark Emerson. Emerson has a wonderful sense of physical expression and physical comedy. Not one gesture is misplaced or wrong for the character. His face and voice are wonderfully in line with the youthful enthusiasm that Merton feels for his future in Hollywood. Falling apart or taking charge of his destiny, Emerson manages to bring reality to a new level of delicious. This is a performance not to be missed, not if you like true acting, acting that doesn’t betray itself by feeling like acting. On stage Emerson is Merton and Merton is alive, kicking and protesting his dramatic possibilities. This is wonderful theater.
As the Montague Girl, a Hollywood wannabe who does it all, extra work, doubling, writing, and saving the hide of a novice like Merton, there is Crystal Finn. She is quirky and delightful, the perfect match for Emerson’s Merton. Finn could probably do a triple take (she doesn’t get one here) if she had to and make each bit of it a scream.
Curran Connor makes movie comic Jeff Baird quite loveable and Kirk Jackson does well in both his roles, the storekeeper from Illinois and the stage actor turned film waiting-room drunk (a Kaufman staple, a character who makes it to Hollywood again in GSK's first collaboration with Moss Hart, "Once in a Lifetime"). Mark Alhadeff is an excellent film director, Sigmund Rosenblatt - a combination of Victor Fleming and Eric Von Stroheim. As the film star Merton adores, Beulah Baxter, there is the stunning Gardner Reed.
Nearly stealing the show away from the leads is actress Ann McDonough as Merton’s landlady Mrs. Patterson. Silverstein has given her some of the funniest business and she carries it off with aplomb, making her repetitive gestures funnier each time she performs them.
In fact, the entire company of thirteen acts to a tee the nineteen roles they’ve been given in this slightly reduced cast list (the original play had 32 characters). Running just over two hours and fifteen minutes with a single intermission, the play, particularly the second act, zips by as laughter, charm and pathos, yes pathos, fills the audience’s brains and hearts while Merton plays out his story of love and desire.
The set for this show is absolutely ridiculous, and absolutely perfect. Four of its five sets utilize the same backdrop and once you know what it is, it fades into negative space letting the action play out where it should and the movement of other actors and stagehands become part of the panoply of life in Hollywood. Bill Clarke has imaginatively put this all together.
The period costumes designed by Theresa Squire wear wonderfully on these actors and Josh Bradford’s lighting does exactly what it should do in giving us highlights and low lights as well.
All in all, this is a wonderful way to spend a summer evening, or afternoon, especially if it’s cold and wet. Or, come to think of it, hot and steamy.
Merton of the Movies plays at the Dorset Playhouse through July 18. The theater is located at 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont. For full schedules, prices and to purchase tickets contact the box office at 802-867-5777.