Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing the latest in our “potpourri” series on classic Broadway plays, specifically comedies, that I’m studying for (mostly) the first time. For this entry, I was considering plays that were all produced on Broadway in the 1950s. Then I realized there were three that had something in common — they were all played by What’s My Line?‘s Arlene Francis, either on Broadway or regionally…
KIND SIR (1953)
Logline: An actress carries on an affair with a man whom she falsely believes is already married.
Author: Norman Krasna | Original Broadway Director: Joshua Logan
Original Broadway Cast: Mary Martin, Charles Boyer, Margalo Gillmore, Frank Conroy, Dorothy Stickney, Robert Ross
Thoughts: Mary Martin originally starred alongside Charles Boyer in Kind Sir as an unlucky-in-love actress who finally falls for the man of her dreams, not minding the fact that he’s apparently already married. While the first two acts are all about slowly building their romantic bond, with his jealous streak deliberately established, the final act pivots into a more comedic place, with the leading lady having learned that her lover has been lying to her about his marital status, even after she asked him to divorce his wife and commit to her. So, she concocts a revenge scheme to make him green with envy by calling upon an ex — who, at the last minute, is detained and must therefore be substituted by her housekeeper’s elderly husband — without realizing that his intentions are already to marry her anyway. This scheme throws a wrench in those plans, but of course, it all ends happily. One of many comedies by prolific playwright Norman Krasna, who later adapted this text for the film Indiscreet (1958) with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, the first two acts are fairly slow and little more than chuckle-inducing, with the sophisticated premise of an affair giving emotional weight that still feels a little cliché. But the third act goes into more narratively amusing territory… predictable, perhaps, but with a structural understanding of the necessity for what a climax must be in any piece billed as a comedy. Indeed, this design does ultimately validate Kind Sir as a comedic play and, with the balance of those earlier, more romantic, “adult” moments, it’s easy to see why this would be selected for many a diva, from Mary Martin to Arlene Francis to Ingrid Bergman. It’s far from a classic, but I’m sure it can be an agreeable evening in the theatre, especially with stars who are enjoying themselves. In my opinion, it’s not as thoughtful as it probably wants to be, and more importantly, it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as it needs to be, so it’s ultimately average.
Jackson’s Rating: 5/10
Logline: A pair of married lovers who’ve been cohabiting every summer to write books under the pen name “Janus” run afoul with both the IRS and a jealous husband.
Author: Carolyn Green | Original Broadway Director: Reginald Denham
Original Broadway Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Robert Preston, Claude Dauphin, Mary Finney, Robert Emhardt
Thoughts: Playwright Carolyn Green offers a unique premise in this comedy about adultery, with the added wrinkle that the cheating pair is not just working on romance, but a successful career as novelists as well — writing under the pen name “Janus.” The conflict seems to be about what happens when the IRS decides to investigate, threatening to expose them to their spouses — but that fear is scooped by the unplanned arrival of the lady’s husband, who proves to be okay with the writing but definitely not okay with the affair, deciding he wants a divorce. In fact, he’s so not okay that when the IRS agent visits — and it initially looks to be only a simple matter of the duo not claiming any deductions — he reveals their whole strange arrangement, thereby ensuring consequences for all involved. Fortunately, a little implied blackmail of the philandering IRS agent solves the tax issue, while the romantic shenanigans get sorted out eventually — with her leaving both men, the husband chasing after her, and the trio’s status quo returned… as the curtain falls on the other wife arriving. As you can see, this is narratively the funniest and most originally plotted comedy in this post, and it deserves credit for its sheer creativity. However, I think it’s probably the least well-written of the three, with a lot of little head-scratching moments and a misuse of the story thread that makes it most interesting — the IRS bit — for although the script smartly knows to connect the tax issues to the affair by having the husband’s presence complicate both, we expect those consequences to arise in a third act climax that never actually comes, for the leading lady fixes those problems off-stage and with a deus ex machina. It’s thus neither amusing nor satisfying. And the romantic back-and-forth is simply less engaging, for while both men are well-contrasted, it’s not totally buyable on the page that she would have feelings for either, based on the way they’re written — especially her husband. In this regard, the triangle angle of Janus isn’t able to carry the weight of the story when the novelty of the IRS issue is so ill-handled. So, this has a better premise than execution — but perhaps that was enough for Margaret Sullavan, Arlene Francis, and even Betty White.
Jackson’s Rating: 5/10
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING (1958)
Logline: A temperamental symphony conductor pretends to have reunited with his estranged wife to rebook his former position in Chicago.
Author: Harry Kurnitz | Original Broadway Director: George Axelrod
Original Broadway Cast: Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis, Walter Matthau, Leon Belasco, Ralph Bunker, Dan Frazer, Frank Milan, Paul E. Richards, Rex Williams
Thoughts: Of the three plays here, I think Once More, With Feeling is the most dependent on its performances, for there are basically three star parts that each require an inherent personal magnetism. However, the script itself is clever as well, as it finds a way to make something ordinary more lively, dressing up a routine plot — about a difficult husband who wants his estranged wife to pretend that they’re still together, long enough for him to land a job — by setting it in the world of symphony orchestras, with the husband a genius-but-mean conductor and his long-suffering wife a harpist who is forced to clean up his mistakes. Naturally, she only agrees to the arrangement because she herself wants to remarry and needs a quick divorce. (The wrinkle that the pair were never legally married and must get married and then divorced is, I think, supposed to be zany, but it doesn’t add much to the proceedings or how they’re obviously going to play out.) And, of course, though she initially can’t stand to be back in his presence, she eventually falls prey again to his charms, as he finally shows the shocking ability to compromise, giving them both emotional arcs that justify their inevitable happy ending. Now, no points should be awarded for the basic story or the idea of a temperamental genius wooing back his beaten-down paramour (we’ve seen it, and it’s only fun with people we like) — but the details render it enjoyable, and lovers of classical music probably enjoyed the many then-contemporary references, especially from the funniest character: the conductor’s frantic agent (the Walter Matthau role), who facilitates so much of the action and has the best lines. So, again, this is a play that needs three great performers to accentuate the comedy and, most importantly, make the contrived romantic plot line palatable. Arlene Francis, Joseph Cotten, and Walter Matthau first did that on Broadway to strong reviews — but Kay Kendall, Yul Brynner, and Gregory Ratoff were less successful in a 1960 screen adaptation. (I wonder how Betty White and Allen Ludden did in summer stock!) I’d love to see it staged and played well one day.
Jackson’s Rating: 6/10
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!