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Theater Review

'Merton's' Flickering Dreams Evaporate in the Light of Day

July 09, 1999|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

A gently wisecracking 1922 antique, "Merton of the Movies" doesn't get revived much these days. It's a rube-in-Hollywood fairy tale, one of many collaborations between George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, who wrote it without having been to Hollywood themselves.

It needs a lot more zip than it's getting in the current Geffen Playhouse production.

Director John Rando staged the Geffen's "All in the Timing" and has fashioned some tasty productions in recent years at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. He appears flummoxed here, by the number of sets required, by the notion of period snap and charm, by the challenge of keeping an uneven ensemble moving and talking at the proper speed. Hurry up, everybody. Too many performances fall prey to that unfortunate combination of a little too broad and a little too slow. Scenes that should fly like Preston Sturges, or at least like George S. Kaufman, move instead like "Ordinary People."

The rhythm's in the lines; the rhythm's in the lives led by Kaufman and Connelly. These two knew what they wanted--a life in the theater, a natural adjunct to the world they knew as newspapermen devoted to Broadway.

Their respective jobs after World War I found Kaufman covering the legit stage for the New York Times, Connelly for the Morning Telegraph. This led to a friendship and then to the first of many comic collaborations, "Dulcy." Its most risible character was a silent-film scenario writer, an aesthete who bores everyone to tears with detailed descriptions of his "Intolerance"-like epic, "Sin." Windbags and poseurs: That's what Kaufman and Connelly smelled coming from the vicinity of Hollywood.

The New York stage wised up fast to the gold in them thar satiric hills. A year after "Dulcy" came their biggest hit, "Merton of the Movies," adapted from a serialized Saturday Evening Post novel by Harry Leon Wilson. In it, a provincial Illinois store clerk--Horatio Alger, but dumber, with dreams of doing something rare and elevating in motion pictures--heads west to make his fortune.

Merton (Barry Del Sherman) is befriended by Flips (Heidi Mokrycki)--also known as the Montague Girl--a stunt double for Merton's favorite glamour-puss, Beulah Baxter (Anita Barone). Merton's first gig as a movie extra goes poorly, and he's summarily canned by director Sig Rosenblatt (David Garrison). But Flips sees Merton's comic potential, even if Merton doesn't.

The play's a quaint bookend to a later, greater Kaufman project spoofing the early sound era, "Once in a Lifetime" (co-written by Moss Hart). These days, if you're going to commit a theater's resources to a big, multi-set Kaufman comedy, I'm not sure why you'd do "Merton" rather than "Lifetime." Still, "Merton" has its own appeal.

Director Rando isn't afraid of shtick. (He has, however, wisely excised most of the casually racist jokes.) Trouble is, he lets every performer go off in his or her own direction. Though he has an appealing Jack Oakie quality, and manages some real feeling in the more sincere moments, Sherman's Merton sticks doggedly to one pinched, scowling expression throughout.

Mokrycki is playing an innately likable, unaffected character, but she comes off as brittle and mannered as Barone's Beulah Baxter. I laughed a couple of times at Don Lee Sparks (as a cultured drunk), simply because he knows how to do something cheap and sly and move on.

Frustratingly, the cast features no shortage of good talent. Garrison has done lovely comic work in other shows, among them "You Never Know" at the Pasadena Playhouse, alongside the wonderful Megan Mullally. Richard Libertini, a distinctive goofball, seems not to have made up his mind how to play his Mack Sennett-like mogul. Eugene Roche plays Merton's doubting ex-employer, and he's pretty good. Though he, too, pushes it.

Scenic designer Kent Dorsey's solutions to the play's multi-locale problems are, in the end, problematic. The actors continually get shoved into little diorama-like boxes upstage, away from the audience. Which doesn't help us enjoy Merton's fall and rise.

"Merton" deserves better.

* "Merton of the Movies," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (Also 2 p.m. July 21.) Ends Aug. 1. $30-$40. (310) 208-5454 or (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Eugene Roche: Amos G. Gashwiler

Jim Fyfe: Elmer Huff

Barry Del Sherman: Merton Gill

Lucy Lee Flippin: Tessie Kearns

Meagen Fay: Casting director

Don Lee Sparks: J. Lester Montague, Mr. Walberg

David Garrison: Sigmond Rosenblatt

Emil Ahangarzadeh: Cameraman

Heidi Mokrycki: The Montague Girl

Gerritt VanderMeer: Harold Parmalee

Richard Libertini: Jeff Baird

Anita Barone: Beulah Baxter

Susannah Conn: Muriel Mercer

Liz Brohm, Jill Dixon, Andrew Hotz, Mark Martin, Charlotte Purifoy, Sarah Sunde, Wade Williams: Ensemble

Written by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Directed by John Rando. Set by Kent Dorsey. Costumes by Jonathan Bixby. Lighting by Daniel Ionazzi. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Casting by Lisa Zarowin. Production stage manager Peter Van Dyke.

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