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 selected three titles that all opened on Broadway in 1939…
NO TIME FOR COMEDY (1939)
Logline: A comic actress finds her playwright husband being lured away by a young woman who encourages him to direct his talents toward something more artistically noble.
Author: S. N. Behrman | Original Broadway Director: Guthrie McClintic
Original Broadway Cast: Katharine Cornell, Laurence Olivier, Margalo Gillmore, John Williams, Robert Flemyng, Gee Gee James, Peter Robinson
Thoughts: This is a basic rom-com triangle (or square, as there are two couples) set among the sophisticated elite of New York — the kind of high-class bunch that’s inspired many a cinematic farce or light screwball. But it’s dressed up with a lot of interesting ideas, starting with a seemingly self-conscious debate about the value of trivial comedies during an era of intense social and political upheaval, with one woman (the comic actress) representing the argument in favor of laughter, and the other (the bored wife of an eccentric businessman) representing a desire for more somberly thoughtful ruminations. Additionally, the two ladies also represent different attitudes about life — one dreamier and more romantic, encouraging men to exceed their capabilities and achieve an immortalizing greatness, the other more grounded and down-to-earth, asking us to merely express what we can while we’re still alive to enjoy it. It’s a terrific contrast in personalities. Their corresponding husbands, whose personas seem better suited for a wife-swap, are also well-drawn, and there’s much fun in their varying interactions, with Act One setting up the characters and the plot engine of this sexless but emotional affair between the playwright and his new cheerleader, Act Two boasting the juicy confrontations that create the thematic tension, and then Act Three featuring the resolution, with the actress getting her husband out of this whole mess by persuading him against the heavy-handed Spanish Revolution play he’s been encouraged to write in favor of a bubbly comedy about a playwright caught between two women with contrasting ideals. Proffering a metatheatricality that, in the 21st century may feel clichéd, but for 1939 would have been fresh and exciting, No Time For Comedy is indeed a smart piece, with conceptual debates delivered through rich characters who have a lot of sharp, funny lines. In fact, I was surprised to enjoy a play about plays so much (I tend to dislike this kind of navel-gazing), but it’s wonderfully written. Stay away from the film adaptation though; it changes the story drastically and loses the humor — this really belongs in the theatre, which is honored as a venue for these thoughtful discussions. (Oh, but I could do without the maid whose dialogue is rendered in dialect; even by 1939’s standards, it’s crass.)
Jackson’s Rating: 7.5/10
Logline: An advertising executive is caught between his wife and his career.
Author: Samson Raphaelson | Original Broadway Director: Samson Raphaelson
Original Broadway Cast: Gertrude Lawrence, Glenn Anders, Donald Cook, Vivian Vance, Gertrude Bryan, Robert Burton, William David, Walter Gilbert, Horace Sinclair, Ann Driscoll
Thoughts: Skylark is a straightforward comedic drama about marital discord, with a neglected wife, Lydia, who feels secondary to her husband Tony’s work. The first act creates the circumstances that lead to her leaving him — their anniversary party, where Lydia goes off with a flirtatious drunk who, unbeknownst to her, is the live-in boytoy of Tony’s boss’ domineering wife. When she realizes Tony is madder about the potential consequences for his career than the possibility that something romantic might have happened during their mini-adventure, Lydia walks out and prepares for divorce. The second act finds her agreeing to return, after Tony manages to convince her that he’ll leave his job — which he doesn’t actually intend to do. However, Lydia makes that choice for him, when she gets into a fight with the boss’ wife and has Tony fired. From there, Act Three charts their happiness at initially being free of all obligations… and then a scheme involving an adoptable baby that Tony uses to get Lydia to agree to settle back down once again, while he lands a new and better job. Originally starring the unpredictable Gertrude Lawrence — with Vivian Vance as the haughty boss’ wife — Raphaelson’s text really comes alive in her dialogue, and it’s particularly poetic with her potential paramour, the drunk playboy, so much so that he sometimes reads as false, especially when juxtaposed against the way most of the other characters speak. I imagine it’s dependent on strong performances. As for the plot, the first act is calculated but dramatically tight and interesting, while the second continues the story believably. Things falls apart in the third, when the leading lady finally finds peace simply by receiving a baby. Okay, she learns that her husband cares just as much for her as his career, but throwing her a kid as the prize of that happy ending seems to reduce the solution for their angst down to needing children. And that feels too simplistic, convenient. In fact, the 1941 film adaptation with Claudette Colbert completely rewrote the end — having her run off with the drunk, before returning to her husband. That’s not satisfying either, for the character who must change is the husband, and both of these versions don’t really give him the arc. That’s what most keeps Skylark from greatness.
Jackson’s Rating: 5.5/10
MARGIN FOR ERROR (1939)
Logline: A corrupt Nazi official is murdered and everyone in the American consulate has a reason for wanting him dead.
Author: Clare Boothe | Original Broadway Director: Otto Preminger
Original Broadway Cast: Sam Levene, Otto Preminger, Philip Coolidge, Elspeth Eric, Leif Erickson, Bramwell Fletcher, Bert Lytell, Edward McNamara, Evelyn Wahl
Thoughts: Subtitled “A Satirical Melodrama,” this gem by Clare Boothe Luce — who had previously written The Women (1936) — is shockingly funny, offering big laughs inside a plot that’s actually quite dark, and indeed, it was controversial at the time, with protesters disrupting the out-of-town tryouts. Its first act (of two) culminates in an extended pantomime where the evil and corrupt Nazi official at a major American consulate is murdered, while five others — who all want him dead — are in the same room: his informant wife, who deplores his beliefs and has a vulnerable father he’s threatened to harm; her lover, an American journalist eager to keep his paramour from deportation; an American doctor, whose daughter has been killed in a concentration camp from which he was paying the consul to have her rescued; an inept German-American Bund officer whom the consul is trying to turn into a martyr (by having him killed and framing it on a Jew); and the bigwig’s right-hand man, a dedicated German who is being tormented over the fact that one of his grandmothers was Jewish. It’s up to the security guard — Moe Finkelstein, whom the mayor had tasked with protecting the consulate — to solve this case and spare the world the negative publicity of a Nazi murder by a Jewish cop. The entire first act brilliantly sets up these motives and establishes that the consul himself is under investigation for his obvious corruption and incompetence, while Act Two finds these six characters — and the corpse — recreating that elaborate pantomime over and over again until they discover the truth: the cruel Nazi was shot, stabbed, and poisoned. So, who really did it? It’s a lot of exciting fun, with huge laughs, and for 1939, an incredibly thoughtful array of different perspectives on the evils of Nazism. My only critique is that there’s an unevenness to the comedy; as a sitcom connoisseur, I’m primed to want everybody to have possible sources of humor. The inept Bund officer, the plain-talking cop, and the outrageous Nazi jerk (initially played by Otto Preminger) dominate the yuks, while everyone else just helps fill out story. However, it’s all purposeful and comes together nicely, and while there is a 1943 film with Milton Berle, the stricter unity of time, place, and action makes this tightly written play more sublime. And, again, it’s so much funnier than you’d expect. I’d love to see this staged someday.
Jackson’s Rating: 8/10
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!