Monday, May 18, 2015

Retro Productions' Dazzling Revival of The Butter and Egg Man by George S. Kaufman

The cast of THE BUTTER AND EGG MAN.  Photo by Kyle Connolly.
Although The Butter and Egg Man may be viewed as something of a precursor to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the fact remains that it was written by George S. Kaufman and first staged at the Longacre Theatre nearly a century ago, so it really ought come as no surprise that the play may seem quite dated today - what with its flappers and bootleggers, its vaudevillians and blue laws.  The play debuted, after all, in the “Roaring Twenties,” a time that was in many ways quite unlike our own, a time when hotel managers looked askance at a single woman’s visiting a man’s room, and a time when the police were more likely than not to shut down a theatrical production if it included a scene in a brothel.  And that, of course, may well be the very reason that Retro Productions selected this particular play to revive for its Tenth Anniversary production since Retro takes it as its mission to “tell good theatrical stories which have an historical perspective – with an emphasis on the 20th century – in order to broaden our own understanding of the world we live in.”

And we all may be very glad that they did because this is one helluva revival – or to use the vernacular of the 1920s: “This show’s a pipe.”  (No, I didn’t know what the phrase meant either until I read the definition provided in the play’s program: “It’s a cinch, easy as pie, sure to succeed.”)  For that is just what this revival deservedly is: a pipe, a cinch, and sure to succeed.

Joe Lehman (Brian Stillman) is a sleazy theatrical agent and wannabe theatrical producer.  Together with his equally sleazy partner, Jack McClure (Matthew Trumbull), he hopes to stage a production of Her Lesson, a convoluted mess of a story featuring the aging actress, Mary Martin (Shay Gines), in the lead role.  There is only one problem: the partners lack the funds to finance the production and Fanny Lehman (Heather E. Cunningham), a one-time vaudeville performer and now Joe’s wife, who could afford to finance the show herself if she chose to, refuses to do so.

Not to worry.  Along comes Peter Jones (Ben Schnickel), a wholesome lad who lives with his mother in Chillicothe, Ohio and who has just arrived in New York in the hopes of parlaying the $20,000 inheritance he received from his grandfather into a large enough sum to enable him to buy the hotel at which he works and return to Chillicothe not merely as one of its employees but as its owner.
Voila!  Peter encounters Joe’s secretary, Jane Weston (Alisha Spielmann), and is immediately smitten.  Jane is as wholesome as Peter but the two are no match for the likes of Joe and Jack.  Predictably, Peter is prevailed upon to invest his $20,000 in Her Lesson, the play opens in Syracuse, and it bombs.  Peter, it seems, is the quintessential “butter and egg man” of the play’s title (defined in the play’s program as 1920s slang for “a naïve but rich investor, a sap, a mark”).

But things are not always as they seem.  Peter buys out Joe’s and Jack’s interests in Her Lesson and the apparent flop goes on to become an unlikely hit on Broadway.  Peter has turned the tables on Joe and Jack, he has won Jane’s hand, and he is on top of the world.  Until, that is, it all comes crashing down upon him with the arrival of A. J. Patterson (Seth Sheldon), an OCD attorney whose client contends (with considerable supporting evidence) that Peter never owned the rights to Her Lesson in the first place.  It looks as if Peter may be nothing more than a “butter and egg man” after all.

Or is he?  The play’s not over yet and you’ll have to see it to find out.

The cast is wonderful across the board with several terrific standouts.  Brian Stillman plays the role of Joe as a loud, trumpeting, cigar-chomping alpha male – something of a cross between Zero Mostel, Jim Belushi and Jackie Gleason – while Matthew Trumbull acts the part of his sidekick, Jack, in truly reptilian fashion.  Shay Gines channels Gloria Swanson in her portrayal of Mary Martin and both Ben Schnickel and Alisha Spielmann are the fresh-faced innocents, Peter and Jane, that any mother would be proud to call her own.

Ricardo Rust, the play’s director, also deserves a special shout-out, not only for his overall success in eliciting such fine performances from his very talented cast but also for his remarkably creative choreography of the play’s scene transitions.  It is all too often the case that audiences at off off Broadway plays must suffer through distracting and time-consuming scene changes that not only do nothing to enhance the theatrical experience but actually detract from it.  Quite the opposite is the case here.  In this revival of The Butter and Egg Man at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, the scene transitions themselves are entertaining as the entire cast acts in concert, rearranging and transporting furniture and props in a delightfully choreographed dance straight out of the “Roaring Twenties.”

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