Tuesday, December 8, 2009

So Help Me God!

Kristen Johnston is hilarious as Lily Darnley, a stage diva who thinks the whole world revolves around her, in the Mint Theatre Company production of Maurine Dallas Watkins' comedy So Help Me God!, which opened last night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

The character is so over-the-top in her self-involvement that it takes a skilled actress to keep the performance from going over the top. Johnston gets it just right -- from the deep, throaty voice and the grand gestures to the fast-paced dialogue. And she’s a riot when Lily, so in love with herself, passionately kisses her own reflection in the mirror, leaving a mess of her bright red lipstick as a telltale sign of her narcissism.

Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank stages this production of the backstage farce that was written 80 year ago and is just now seeing the light of day on a New York stage. The Mint’s mission is to mount lost, neglected and forgotten plays and they do it beautifully. Any show I’ve ever seen there has been excellent. It’s one theatre, like the Irish Rep, that can always be counted on for quality.

The plot of So Help Me God! revolves around the cast of a new play, Empty Hands, as it makes its way to Broadway in the autumn of 1929. It’s a hoot to watch Lily completely rewrite the play as the hapless playwright, played with delightfully appropriate helplessness by Ned Noyes (facing Johnston in photo), looks on. Lily likes her male costar’s lines better than hers, so she switches dialogue with him during rehearsal. Even when this leaves him announcing that he’s pregnant, she forges on, completely reinventing the characters as she goes along.

When the playwright does actually get some recognition -- his photo in the paper with an announcement of the coming play, Lily is indignant. What does he have to do with it, she wants to know. “Who cares what he looks like,” she says. “There should be a picture of me.”

She has a similar reaction when the young ingenue (Anna Chlumsky), who just happens to be her understudy, is singled out in a review. “All they should say is ‘Miss Darnley is ably supported,’” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand.

This could certainly be said for Johnston, who is ably supported by her cast, especially Chlumsky, who appear naive, but is ambitious enough to want to replace Lily. It is she who gives the play its title. On her knees alone on stage at the first act closer, she prays for Lily to be sidelined, not with anything catastrophic, but with something like the measles or the mumps. “I want to be a star, so help me God,” she pleads.

The lively ensemble also features Brad Bellamy, Catherine Curtin, Amy Fitts, Jeremy Lawrence, Kevin O'Donnell, John G. Preston, Allen Lewis Rickman, Kraig Swartz, Peter Van Wagner, Matthew Waterson, Margot White and John Windsor-Cunningham.

Bill Clarke provides effective backstage sets and Clint Ramos has created fun Roaring Twenties costumes.

My only complaint is that the second act drags. If 10 minutes were cut, bringing the play down to two hours, it would be better. Still, the show is lots of fun, as backstage comedies so often are.

Another interesting show could be made from the life of the playwright herself. Watkins, the only child of a Protestant minister in Indiana, was the author of Chicago, a 1926 play based on her experience as a crime reporter covering sensation murder trials for The Chicago Tribune. That play became the basis for the Kander and Ebb musical, although not in her lifetime -- she turned down Bob Fosse when he tried to get the rights to musicalize it in the 1950s. Those rights were only given after her death, in 1969, by her estate. She had become a born-again Christian and worried that the play might seem to glamorize crime. It had already run successfully on Broadway in 1926, directed by George Abbott, and a silent movie version appeared the next year.

So Help Me God had a rockier journey to the spotlight. Scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall of 1929, the stock market crash, followed by the Great Depression, put an end to that. It was put into a drawer and never even published. Now, 80 years later, it has come to life.

In spite of that setback, Watkins was considered a promising playwright, and then, after she moved from New York to Hollywood, a successful screenwriter. Among the quirky details of her life is her refusal to type even mild curse words into her scripts, leaving it to directors to fill in her “blankety-blanks.” She also didn’t drink or smoke.

Tickets for So Help Me God!, which plays through Dec. 20, are available by phoning (212) 279-4200, by visiting TicketCentral or at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. For more information, visit MintTheater.

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