SO HELP ME GOD!A re-discovered 1929 comedy
By Maurine Dallas Watkins
Director – Terry Dobson
Set Design – Jac Alder
Costume Design – Bruce Richard Coleman
Lighting Design – Kenneth Farnsworth
Sound Design – Richard Frohlich
Stage Manager – Katie Marchant
Jules Meredith – Jeffrey Colangelo
Mose Jason – Don Alan Croll
Chester Burleigh – Gordon Fox
George Herrick – Joel Frapart
David Hobart – H. Francis Fuselier
Judith DeSoto/Mme. Krinkaolovaka – Jessica Helton
Bart Henley – Bob Hess
Lily Darnely – Julie Johnson
Blake Baldwin – Jason Kane
Glenn Ledeux – Robert Neblett
Eloise Orleans – Nadine Marissa Richard
Desmond Armstrong – Ian Patrick Stack
Belle O’Malley – Lulu Ward
Kerren Happuch-Lane – Nicole Weber
Frou-Frou – Skye the Dog
Reviewed Performance: 8/12/2013
Reviewed by Sten-Erik Armitage, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
So what happened to So Help Me God!? How did a script from such an accomplished and well-known artist vanish for eighty years? As with so much else on the stage, it came down to timing.
The play is about the industry of stage theatre and takes a darkly comical look at the competitive, dog-eat-dog nature of life on the boards. So Help Me God! was slated to open on Broadway in late 1929. In an ironic twist, the backers pulled the play for revisions. Then came the stock market crash and the play was lost. The irony is found in the script itself, wherein revisions and temperamental backers play a key role.
Theatre Three opened their 52nd season with this re-discovered classic with only nominal tweaking by the theatre’s Executive Producer-Director Jac Alder. The feel of the period was preserved – jokes about Calvin Coolidge and Mussolini remained – and the production did not suffer or feel dated. The script was witty, the dialogue tight, and the playwright’s intention to cast a cynical and somewhat judgmental eye on the industry was clear. So the question is, “Did this production do justice to Watkin’s vision?”
After all these years, Theatre Three has certainly mastered the use of creativity within their venue. The set design by Jac Alder was simple yet effective. Alder capitalized on the room, not limiting himself to the floor level stage for traditional theatre in the round. With dressing rooms built up the stairs on one corner of the theatre and the catwalk/backstage design on the other, cast members worked throughout the venue. All-in-all, it proved an excellent use of the space. In the first and third acts, I was made to feel as though I were backstage. The second act – complete with hanging chandelier and period-appropriate paneled walls – revealed the luxury suite of our show’s diva. Well done.
Costume design by Bruce Richard Coleman fit in to Alder’s 1920’s set perfectly. There was no element of the clothing that felt out of place or anachronistic. I can’t imagine it was easy to create a diverse wardrobe for a sizeable cast that so accurately reflected the period and mood of the piece. In some instances the color palate or excessive layering seemed less than flattering for the women but it still worked and didn’t prove to be a distraction or point of inconsistency within the production.
One significant shortfall was the sound design by Richard Frohlich. There were significant stretches of time, particularly in the third act, where dialogue was completely lost due to competing sounds. The volume of what was happening “onstage” for the fictional show swallowed the dialogue we were supposed to be hearing from the conversations “backstage.” There were a number of occasions where this swallowing of dialogue by background sound occurred.
From the tone and feel of the first act, I suspect Director Terry Dobson made the mistake of encouraging his actors to go over-the-top with their characterizations of these 1920 era stage professionals; then allowed them to go too far. H. Francis Fuselier played the role of David Hobart, the director of the fictional play within the play. I have had the privilege of seeing Fuselier in other productions in Dallas and know him to be a talented and effective character actor. Unfortunately, his portrayal of the brow-beaten director was so over-the-top that it proved to be a distraction. At times, his physicality and delivery had great comic potential, but as a result of the consistent caricature, the places where it would have been effective were simply not seen as a result of this interpretive decision. At times Fuselier anticipated the delivery of verbal abuse from the diva and winced before the line had been delivered.
One of the first performers of the evening was Belle O’Malley, played by Lulu Ward. Ward had wonderful presence but her vocal delivery was so fast I often lost the dialogue. This was evident during the first act but seemed to improve as the evening went on. Where the over-the-top caricature seemed to work was in the interplay between Hobart (Fuselier) and Chester Burleigh as portrayed by Gordon Fox. Fuselier in the role of the fictional director did what many directors often do, and walked Fox through a scene. Displeased with his gait, Fuselier told him to walk with more color - maybe … mauve. Fox played it up and it was a wonderful comic moment. It worked because when Fox wasn’t portraying an actor working a scene he portrayed himself as an actor. This contrast made his over-the-top characterization work. Throughout the evening, Fox was a delight to watch even when the center of attention was elsewhere. He never broke character and had fun with his role – often with comic results for those who were watching him and not the action. There was no upstaging, just subtle physical and facial comedy.
What backstage drama would be complete without the handsome leading man? Jeffrey Colangelo played Jules Meredith, the erstwhile love interest of the play-within-the-play. Colangelo was convincing as the outwardly cocky and egotistical leading man despite the reality of his insecure and desperate core. Colangelo was another who excelled at physical comedy. His moments opposite his “leading lady” in the first act were campy yet comic.
This brings us to the fictional play’s diva, the great and legendary goddess of the stage, Lily Darnely, played by Julie Johnson. The very nature of this part demanded that she be larger than life and Johnson captured the essence of the diva fully. In the first act she bullied and manipulated everyone from the director to the author to the cast, twisting the production into her own image, much to the dismay of the fictional author, George Herrick, played by Joel Frapart. Where Johnson truly shone was not in her screaming rants and tirades but in her drunken and hung-over stupor in Act 2. Truly brilliant. Her entrance at the top of the act was the height of comedy, no words necessary.
Another moment to watch for would be Darnely’s awkward romance with Desmond Armstrong as portrayed by Ian Patrick Stack. Stack played the leading man Darnely wanted in the role instead of Jules Meredith; so of course she manipulated the situation in an effort to make that happen. This love scene between two people who are so clearly only in love with themselves was sickeningly hilarious. Let’s just say that the mirror on set got more action than either of the actors!
One of the brightest lights shining through the cast was Nadine Marissa Richard playing the part of the diva’s maid, Eloise Orleans. Ms. Richard had the best comic timing and delivery of the company. This may be because she didn’t rely on a campy caricature of her role, but truly made it her own.
In the second act, we meet Mose Jason, the only reasonably thinking member of the cast, other than his all-consuming greed of course. Mose Jason is the producer of the play-within-a-play and characterized capably by Don Alan Croll. Croll was well suited to the role and very believable as the glue that held the insanity of the company together. That said, Croll spent quite a bit of time early in the act screaming into the phone and expressing his emotion through intense – dare I say, vocally abusive – vocalizations. Croll paid a price for this. Midway through the second act his voice began to fail. The remainder of the show, through the third act, found Croll vocally bereft. Don’t get me wrong. Croll still delivered his lines and did so effectively! But his voice had clearly been strained and tasked beyond advisability. I hope that some warm water with lemon and vocal rest will enable him to continue to do as well as he did on Monday, but without the vocal abuse!
The script revolves around a young, aspiring talent from Cincinnati (the disdain dripping from Fuselier’s lips as he utters “Cincinnati” like an epithet still makes me smile) named Kerren Happuch-Lane, or Kerry for short. Nicole Weber as Kerry was perfect as the naïve small-town girl experiencing the culture shock of entering the real world of high profile, high-ego theatre. Weber was one of the most consistent and believable members of the cast throughout the evening. She was the epitome of innocence transformed to cynicism through brutal reality. One point of contention, though, and I don’t know if this would be an issue with the playwright or with Weber. At one point in the first act it appeared as though we were given a glimpse of a not-so-innocent actress who knew how the world worked and could back-stab along with the best of them as she hid behind the guise of simplicity. But the rest of the play was consistent with the naïve to cynical transformation. The fact the play was pulled before premiere in 1929 for revisions causes me to wonder if perhaps Watkins was still wrestling with which direction to go with this pivotal character and our version of the script reflects the indecision.
It seemed as though Joel Frapart, as the playwright George Herrick, never found his voice in the play. Just because his character’s voice was squelched by the incoherent revisionist demands of his leading lady and the profiteering twists of his directors doesn’t excuse Frapart from needing to find his own. There was a moment when Frapart had an opportunity to stand out as a performer in the second act as he portrayed an author whose vision was being destroyed by the Machiavellian ambitions of the theatre community, but it fell flat. Surrounded by a cast who were seemingly instructed to be over-the-top, Frapart’s subtleties were lost.
Robert Neblett, playing the second director Glenn Ledeux (apparently the first director had been fired), suffered from the same curse as Fuselier. At times his delivery was fantastic, but those moments were eclipsed by overly dramatic physicality and a consistently heightened caricature. Jessica Helton was convincing and fun as Judith DeSoto, but lost as Mme. Krinkaolovaka as her performance was either swallowed by the action on the stage, or her character was simply not clearly defined in the script. Indeed, I couldn’t even remember who this character was until I ran through the closing scene in my mind. Jason Kane was the stalwart, conflict-avoiding and ever present stage manager, Blake Baldwin. Kane was consistent throughout and did a great job of conveying the pressures on him from an unreasonable and volatile fictional cast and director.
In true vaudevillian style, I have saved the best for last. Bob Hess plays the role of Bart Henley, the jaded veteran of the treacherous stage. Hess consistently delivered the best performance of the night. From his comic offense at having a speech cut (“without that speech, I am a shadow”) to his caring mentoring of his accidental protégé, Hess was convincing and powerful. He managed to strike the perfect balance between comic caricature and believable portrayal. While this production did not compel me to see more of these characters and this story, it did compel me to see more of Bob Hess. To shine through what was either a rough script or poor direction choices said much of his ability as a performer.
Skye the dog as Frou-Frou was a delight. A newcomer to the Dallas stage, Skye had an impeccable natural sense of timing and an instinctive ability to read the audience and engage in improvisational comedy. When Eloise Orleans turned to Frou-Frou to ask a rhetorical question (really, the only kind of question to ask a dog), Skye took advantage of the moment to lick her nose. On a more serious note, Skye the dog was a wonderful addition to the cast and is in need of a home. If you’re wanting (or needing) an adorable small companion with some serious stage credibility, email Take Me Home Pet Rescue at email@example.com and ask about Skye.
Should So Help Me God! have been revived from obscurity? I’m not sure. It is a genuinely funny script. Despite some bright spots, though, Theatre Three’s production didn’t prove to be a good indicator. I laughed; it was a funny show. But it should have been, could have been, so much more.
2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, TX 75201
Runs through September 1st
Regular Performances: Thursdays & Sundays @ 7:30 p.p., Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:30.
Additional Performance: Hooky Matinee on Wednesday, August 21st at 2:00 pm
Final Week: 8/28 @ 2, 8/29 @ 7:30, 8/30 @ 8, 8/31 @ 2:30 & 8, and 9/1 @ 2:30 & 7:30.
Tickets range $15.00 to $50.00.
The Wednesday Hooky Matinee tickets are $10.00-$15.00. In addition, each Friday, from 11:00am – 1:00 pm, the theatre sells 20 tickets for $20.00 each to that evening’s performance. Purchases must be made in person at the box office. Limit 2 tickets per person.
Tickets may be purchased by calling Theatre Three’s box office at 214.871.3300, option #1. Tickets may be requested online at www.theatre3dallas.com