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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

An Attractive Coffee Break: Whittier Community Theatre’s “Office Hours”

Cute little sex comedies have been the milieu of community theaters for, at the least, the entirety of my reviewing career. Still, the genre has limits. Problems arise when the standard spectrum of such playss has been exhausted. Some theaters begin trying works written by their members – some prove cute, some impressively disastrous. Other companies widen their search. In doing so, they may encounter hidden treasure.

This may be the case with Whittier Community Theatre, which has unearthed the late-80s charmer “Office Hours” by Canadian Norm Foster. A sort of lightweight, sometimes silly rendition of “La Ronde,” it shows a sequence of interrelated events happening in six different business offices in one downtown block on a single afternoon.

The WTC production, once its cast members find their rhythm, proves quite entertaining. There are just enough surprises to snag the audience’s interest and offer the occasional shout of startled laughter. The actors, most of whom play multiple parts, rise to the task with wit and charm. Director Susan Marx has directed the show with the appropriate clipped pacing, using Roxie Lee’s minimalist set design in such a way as to allow quick, if necessarily low-tech shifts from scene to scene. It’s a good plan.

The best of the cast includes Justin Murphy, who plays, in turn, a philandering literary agent, a lawyer hounded by an overbearing mother, and one of the world’s great salesmen, making each specific and individual in carriage, voice and character. Also worthy of note is Rosalva Reza, best as the agent’s fed-up wife, Todd Prather as a practical, if kind racetrack owner, and Julie Breihan as the bemused and rather disquieted half of a film production partnership. Steven Sullivan has his finest moment as a jockey with an insurmountable problem, and Candy Beck pecks with enthusiasm as the self-focused, overwhelming mom. Andy Kresowski underplays nicely as the henpecked husband with hidden depths.

A word to those used to WTC’s usual G-rated fare: this play is more PG-13, involving a certain amount of scatalogical reference, and some strong language. It is also fresh and, particularly in the second act, quite entertaining. WTC’s governing board has taken audience satisfaction very seriously, including audience surveys, and has concluded a need for more updated material, at least for part of each season. That’s likely to mean fewer euphemisms and more direct references to the adult drives of characters. It’s also likely to attract more young people – the life blood of local theater’s future.

In any case, “Office Hours” is not the same old same old, rehashed. Rather it has enough surprise and charm to carry the community theater day. Catch it while you can. Shows at WTC come and go quickly, by design.

What: “Office Hours” When: Through March 3, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, February 26 Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave in Whittier How Much: $12 general, 10 seniors/juniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or

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