by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Mark Rucker
Asolo Repertory Theatre
FSU Center for the Performing Arts/Mertz Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota
(941) 351-8000, (800) 361-8388
January 6 through February 29, 2012

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Satirizing Hollywood may have been for Kaufman and Hart what their title says. But their 1932 send-up of flimsy films and capricious cinemoguls  turned out to be a forerunner of plays and even movies themselves that put down what playwrights often regard as an infamous industry. For Asolo Rep, director Mark Rucker  puts 19 performers through paces demanded by 70+ roles and three acts of madcapery. What goes by, from a shabby NYC hotel room onward, are scenes on a train (with everyone bouncing slightly inside as cacti may be glanced being passed by outside the windows), also in a huge art deco studio reception room with a panoply of doors, and on sets no Broadway designer would own up to. In between are Austin Forbord’s fine projections from old movies or ones made for this production, B&W of course, that mostly separate or designate scenes in the play. (One “on the beach“ will definitely not be confused with a movie of that name.)

The slight plot follows the fortunes and friendship of three vaudevillians whose run just finished a last lap.  Ambitious promoter Jerry (adequate Andrew Carter) sells their act to afford a move to the new entertainment mecca, Hollywood. Practical May (attractive, intelligent Hillary Clemens) determines they’ll start an elocution business, vocally coaching silent screen stars who have to transition to talkies. Westward ho, they meet influential columnist Helen Hobart (Kate Hampton, lovelier than Louella, more hip than Hedda) who—for half of any profits--will arrange an in with studio boss Herman Glogauer. Goofy but always loveable George (Jason Bradley, the real star) goes along reluctantly until he meets curly-haired, empty-headed Susan Walker  (hilarious  Ashley Scallon). With his winning ways, he captures her heart as well as the approval  of  her mom (Carolyn Michel, effective  epitome of a stage mother).  Most importantly, George unwittingly bowls over meglomaniac Glogauer (David Breitbarth,  acing every test of screwball comic skills).

As the elocutionists fail to meet their goal, so apparently does May and Jerry’s romance.  They just can’t overcome challenges such as presented by the glittery gibberish of glamour girls Florabel Leigh and Phyllis Fontaine (rightly cloying Katie Cunningham and Summer Dawn Wallace). A hokey script and screaming foreign director (James Clarke, out-VonStroheiming Erich) bring everyone to the edge of doom. Thanks to nutty (in more ways than one) George and pretentious critics, Glogauer gets a triumphant film. The fun is in showing how he got there and how George brings his friends with him into cinema history. Along the way comes an array of comic caricatures:  secretaries  dressed in gowns who seem to be continually auditioning for another role; media forerunners of tabloid sensationalists and papparazi;  off-camera technicians , police and porters, restaurant and night club workers, salespeople and servants—mostly wanabee actors who regard every action as a screen test. Representing the playwrights who never get to see the boss who pays them or the movie-makers who ignore their scripts or even fail to assign them, Jake Staley stands out unreeling the frustrations of writer Lawrence Vail.

Behind the scenes stars of this production are Erik Flatmo with gimmicky sets lit by Burke Brown; Alex Jaeger’s costumes of feathers, fur, and all kinds of splash; assistant director Amy Corcoran, the movement specialist whose job of keeping (almost) everyone from bumping into each other is absolutely crucial. Director Rucker’s  demands on energy from all seem a bit much for cast and crew, as well as audiences who must spend 2 hours and 45 minutes on protracted  fluff. It’s said this play inspired the film Singing in the Rain  Ironically, that may be its best claim to lasting fame.

Sound Design and Composer: Cliff Carruthers.  Hair, Makeup: Michelle Hart.  Stage Manager: Patrick Lanczki.

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