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Tribute play “Screwball Comedy”: great potential, shaky comic timing

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The classic screwball comedy films of the 1930s and 40s have remained popular from that time on because of four basic elements: the ridiculousness of the essential storyline, the crisp and evocative dialogue, the quality of and apt casting of the performers, and timing – always the fast-paced, pinpoint timing of the lines and scenes which makes the whole thing memorably funny. This is what playwright Norm Foster wants to celebrate in his play “Screwball Comedy,” now receiving its U.S. premiere at Theatre Forty in Beverly Hills.

Although Foster himself has created a play which honors all the above, with dialogue only slightly more ridiculous than the real thing, and just as deliciously improbable a plot, the current production does little with the rest. With a few exceptions the casting (or at very least character interpretation) is problematic, and the direction by Howard Storm profoundly uneven.

The play follows all the classic tropes. A rough-around-the-edges newspaper editor sends his star reporter (whose ego and nightlife have begun to erode his gifts) and an earnest young woman trying to get hired off to cover the society wedding of the son of the paper’s wealthy-widow owner. What they find is conniving on all fronts, which in turn leads to a certain amount of romantic sparks between the two.

The highlights of performance in this piece come mostly from the performers who seem to have grasped the timing aspect, even if those around them don’t always. Gail Johnston, as Jones, the editor’s secretary, is keen and consistently funny in ways one hopes the rest of the show will emulate. As the wealthy widow, Sharron Shayne has a flamboyance which works well, and an energy which powers points in the production which would otherwise wobble. As the son, hiding his gifts to keep his mother happy, Niko Boles charmingly underplays his part, making it stand out in lovely ways.

Although Lane Compton, as the egotistical ace reporter, has conquered the style of that specific kind of comedy part, he often plays against people whose timing is so slow it remains somewhat difficult to assess his gifts in that regard. As his supposed foil, the prospective cub reporter, Kate Whitney lacks that immediacy of delivery so necessary in this kind of script, where lines need to jump on top of each other to create the humor. As the gold digger trying to marry money, Jean Mackie also supplies little to play off of, as her way to embrace her character’s constant state of inebriation is to slow things down.

Daniel Leslie, as the editor, seems to struggle with his lines, though his characterization proves fitting. George Villas, as the man trying to marry the widow, is so off from the feel of the play he isn’t even giving his lines at the same volume as the rest, booming them out with overelaborate zest. David Hunt Stafford, as the grumpy, bumbling butler, is indeed funny, but funny like a recurring burlesque joke, and thus out of keeping with the rest of the tale.

Much of this lands at the feet of director Storm. Indeed, even among those doing a good job, they are flying solo – there is no sense of directorial coordination of the humor. On the other hand, the set by Jeff G. Rack uses the stage space remarkably well. The costuming by Michele Young misses at important moments, especially in over-dowdying Whitney’s character, though it generally seems to be roughly in that early 40s period. Brandon Baruch does a fine job with the lighting, absolutely necessary when you place different rooms on different parts of the set.

In short, there is nothing horribly wrong with “Screwball Comedy,” except that it doesn’t seem to have any feel of ensemble, and ensemble is what made the great screwball comedies work. It is sometimes quite funny, but not anywhere near as funny as it could easily have been.

What: “Screwball Comedy”  When: Through August 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  Where: The Reuben Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills  How Much: $35. Info: (310) 364-0535 or

“The Manor” returns: Quasi-History in Beverly Hills


For 13 years, on a semi-regular basis, Theatre 40 has produced “The Manor,” based on, albeit fictionalized from, actual events which occurred at the play’s performance site: the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Written by Kathrine Bates, the play is founded in the tragedy which befell the Doheny family in the 1929, when the son of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny met a tragic end at the house his father had built for him and his bride.

In “The Manor,” Doheny becomes Charles MacAlister, a self-made mining magnate. We meet him at the height of the 20s, as he celebrates the marriage of his beloved son Sean to Abby, the daughter of his friend and legal consultant. Another guest at the wedding is a senator – a former fellow miner turned politician – with whom he chooses to make a deal that evening which will come back to haunt him. At the same time, Abby’s friend and former crush, Greg, and Greg’s rather garish wife are also introduced. Though all is rich, and most see the future as a brilliant thing, the groundwork for trouble is laid. In the second half, as the 30s begin, the dangers come home to roost.

The play takes the audience from room to room, not in the way that John Krizanc’s “Tamara” did in the 1980s – having different audience elements follow different parts of the storyline, which they’d share at various points to gradually tell the whole story – but by putting on each scene three times, and having the audience rotate in thirds so everyone sees the whole thing but in differing order. It is a formula which has worked over time, and certainly continues to do so under current director Flora Plumb.

Darby Hinton makes a gently commanding MacAlister – a man whose confidence comes in great measure from a strong sense of family and friendship. As his wife Marion, playwright Bates vibrates with loving and protective enthusiasm – obviously the glue which holds the household together at times. John-Paul Lavoisier, though his looks would seem more appropriate in a modern perfume ad than as the son and business partner of a 20s tycoon, does much to balance the sense of strength and business savvy with a gentle care and concern for his family and future. Annalee Scott rather neatly underplays Abby, leading to a sweetly realistic portrait which clicks better and better as the storyline grows.

Ben Gavin balances an stolid attractiveness with an awkwardness of class as the handyman Greg, while Cynthia Gravinese creates a significantly grating portrait of his grasping wife. Stephen Gustafson makes solid work of the MacAlister lawyer, though he’s not given a whole lot to do. Daniel Leslie, in an ill-fitting tuxedo, doesn’t seem very impressive as a US Senator, but handles his part with ease. Perhaps the best of the performers in the actual storyline is Melanie MacQueen, as the senator’s cool and long-suffering wife. The other really memorable performers are those who take the audience about the place – butler Daniel Lench, mute housemaid Esther Levy Richman, and most particularly housekeeper Katherine Henryk.

It is obvious that people love this thing, and one can see why. It is admittedly fascinating to see this tale play out on the stage where a similar drama actually did. This theatricality makes up for a sometimes artificial pacing, though the last half an hour is very strong and unified. The only completely unnecessary element is an allusion to the ghosts at the very end which – though it may simply be a way to get the entire cast back in the room for a curtain call – thins the sense of the “real,” replacing it with the corny.

Still, I cannot sniff at any piece of theater which inspires Los Angelinos to discover more about their own history. Indeed, the Doheny tale is a particularly colorful chapter.

On a practical level, the good news, at least in comparison with “Tamara”-like adventures, is the comparative lack of stair climbing and trailing over large expanses. The less than good news is the “light refreshment” offered at intermission. Don’t expect more than Doritos, packaged crackers, juice and water. Still, this is a singular event, which only takes place when the city of Beverly Hills has not scheduled other things in what is now a landmark and a museum of sorts.

What: “The Manor” When: Through February 13, 6 p.m. on January 22, 23, 29 and 30, and February 10 – 13 (all matinees were sold out by opening day) Where: Greystone Mansion, in Greystone Park, 905 Loma Vista Drive, above Sunset Blvd. in Beverly Hills How Much: $55 with tickets only available in advance Info: (310) 694-6118 or

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