StageSceneLA: Screwball Comedy is Screwball at its Zingiest

If Ben Hecht‎ and ‎Charles MacArthur (The Front Page, Twentieth Century) were alive today, they might have written Screwball Comedy, a Norm Foster/Theatre 40 gem that more than does justice to the genre whose name it bears.

The slangy, fast-paced repartee that gets things going cues us in that the latest from Canada’s answer to Neil Simon will be screwball at its zingiest. So does its 1938 setting, its cast of zany eccentrics, its sprinkling of slapstick, and its battle-of-the-sexes romance that recalls Cary Grant’s with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

Lane Compton stars as Jeff Kincaid, once “the best doggone reporter this town has ever seen,” and Kate Whitney as out-of-work department store perfume sales girl Mary Hayes, with Daniel Leslie as Chronicle editor Bosco Godfrey, who assigns the duo the task of writing separate articles on the upcoming wedding of the paper’s wealthy socialite owner Dolores Diddle (Sharron Shayne) to the considerably younger Peter Terwilliger (George Villas), and whoever writes the better article will score a job at the Chronicle and the loser a kick out the door.

Flouncy, mop-headed butler Reginald (David Hunt Stafford), a master of the passive-aggressive dig if there ever was one (“I must be wasting your valuable time by standing here being sociable”), introduces Jeff and Mary to the merry widow Diddle, who quickly cuts to the chase.

Her grown son Chauncey (Niko Boles) is engaged to marry Gloria Fontana (Jean Mackie), a fortune-hunting floozy who couldn’t possibly be marrying the “dunderhead” for love, Chauncey being “as desirable as a mild case of shingles,” which is why what Dolores really wants is for Jeff and Mary to forget the puff piece they thought they’d be writing and expose Gloria for the bunko artist she is.

Not only does playwright Foster prove a master of 1930s slang, the era’s sexist attitudes, and the genre’s obligatory double entendres (“Oh Jeffrey, I’m sure that you can satisfy my needs.” “No, you need a private dick for that.”), he gives his characters appropriately outrageous quirks like Mary’s refusal to take written notes despite a noteworthy inability to remember facts and Jeff’s equally noteworthy lack of vocabulary skills. (Just try using words like “assuage” or “appease” and watch them fly right over the ace reporter’s head.)

And forget how much each hates the other at first sight. As any romcom aficionado can tell you, this is just the first step towards happily ever after.

Veteran sitcom director Howard Storm (Rhoda, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, Everybody Loves Raymond) proves the ideal choice to helm Screwball Comedy’s U.S. Premiere as evidenced by his cast’s razor-sharp timing and some terrific slapstick bits. (Reginald may declare his intention to “just sprint from [Jeff and Mary’s] proximity on the winged feet of Hermes” but he hasn’t counted on immovable objects, like doorways, impeding his progress.)

With his leading man looks and a way with phrases like “those places are lousy with tomatoes” (referring to nightclubs and dames in that order), Compton is just the man to follow in Cary’s footsteps; Whitney’s fast-talking, moxie-propelled Mary does Miss Russell proud; and just wait till each of them practices interview techniques on the other to feel the sexual heat.

Shayne’s glamorous grande dame of a Dolores, Villas’s silky-smooth George Sanders-esque Peter, Mackie’s man-eating Gloria, and Boles’s idiot savant Chauncey (accent on the savant) deliver delightful supporting turns.

So do Leslie’s harried Bosco and Gail Johnston as his snappy-tongued secretary Jonesy, and a deliciously fey Stafford has never been more scene-stealing,

Screwball Comedy looks fabulous on Jeff G. Rack’s elegantly appointed set, vibrantly lit by Brendan Baruch, with sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski setting a 1930s mood echoed in Michèle Young’s spot on period costumes and Judi Lewin’s era-and-character-defining makeup, hair, and wigs.

Screwball Comedy is produced by Stafford. Roger K. Weiss is assistant director. Don Solosan is stage manager and Richard Carner is assistant stage manager.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. No one does period pieces better than Theatre 40, and thanks to Beverly Hills’ venerable membership company, L.A. audiences have gotten to discover Canada’s comedy master Norm Foster to boot. Screwball Comedy is T40 and Foster at their screwball best.