Thinking they had found another “Chicago” a play written by the eccentric Maurine Dallas Watkins while a student at Yale in 1926 upon which the long running hit musical is based the Mint Theater has resurrected “So Help Me God!” written in 1928-29 – a long lost, found in a drawer farce written by the very same playwright. It’s gotten a bit moldy sitting in that drawer all these years. Despite the cuts made by director, Jonathan Bank we get creaky where sleek is called for. What should be fast, frothy and ebullient isn’t.
The history of how Bob Fosse eventually got the rights to “Chicago” and the bizarre life that Ms. Watkins lived which is noted in the Playbill is far more interesting than the predictable central casting antics on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre where “So Help Me God!” is playing.
Sometimes you find a treasure and sometimes the treasure chest comes up empty and in the case of this never produced until now comedy – half full.
It’s interesting to note that the title of the play within the play is titled “Empty Hands” in this back stage, supposedly biting satire which stars the dynamic, romantic, glamorous, gin guzzling, egocentric and downright “don’t mess with me buster” star Lily Darnley – herein portrayed by that dynamic, glamorous and very funny Kristen Johnston who deserves a better script and a more complex character. Taking inspiration from Tallulah Bankhead and Charles Busch, Ms. Johnston delivers a whirling diva-ish performance as the star from hell whom all fear. And rightly so.
That is all except the naïve girl from Ohio, Kerry Lane (Anna Chlumsky) who shows up backstage seeking employment with the intent of becoming a star herself without any formal training and who is not at all dumb. She only gives that impression. Echoing “All About Eve” although written twenty years before that classic.
In three acts we see the progression from a rehearsal in shambles where everyone is blaming everyone else for the play not working to its post opening night out of town performance to its eventful Broadway premiere.
Pity the poor playwright (Ned Noyes) Lily’s producer (Allen Lewis Rickman) her first director (Brad Bellamy) her second director (Kraig Swartz) her press agent (Peter Van Wagner) her maid (Amy Fitts) her first leading man (Kevin O’Donnell) his replacement (Matthew Waterson – who matches Ms. Johnston tit for tat) Belle, a member of the company (Catherine Curtin who with her sore feet and sarcastic Joan Blondell/Thelma Ritter take on her part threatens to steal some thunder from Lily) and finally her quivering dog Frou-Frou.
The vibrant Kristen Johnston is ably supported by this large cast but the play never ignites, never sparkles as it should. We could play the blame game here but I suppose there was a good reason why playwright Watkins never made the necessary revisions to make this a sure fire hit.
Period costumes are fine especially the frocks adorning the statuesque, super slim body of Ms. Johnston designed by Clint Ramos. Not helping “So Help Me God! is the set designed by Bill Clarke. An intermission after Act I allows the rehearsal space to be transformed into the luxury suite at the Ritz in Philadelphia but the third change is done awkwardly between Act II and III in semi darkness. Surrounding the proscenium is a photographic collage of the eyes of past and present glamorous stars – which while interesting is extremely distracting but will give you something to do – trying to identify the eyes – when interest wanes while Lily and her cohorts attempt to get their mildly amusing and disappointing show on.