Dulcy by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Directed by Carl Forsman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"You know there’s so much good in the best of us – and so much bad in the worst of us, it ill behooves the rest of us..."
Photos by Harry Lee
Nonsense humor, the art of the non-sequitur, is a lost art these days. No one was better, in the era when such dialogue was all the rage, at creating characters who could make those thought sing than George S. Kaufman. As a collaborator he is credited with most of the funniest lines in plays he co-wrote with Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, Moss Hart and a host of other major and minor playwrights.
In "Dulcy," his first hit show, written in 1920-21, Kaufman gave most of those lines to the title character, Dulcinea Smith, known as Dulcy, a character created by a third author, Franklin P. Adams, who would go on to found The New Yorker Magazine. This character was considered banal (drearily commonplace, predictable), but well-meaning. In the hands of a brilliant young actress named Lynn Fontanne, the character took on a resonance and a life-force that helped the play to run 246 performances in a season crowded with good theater. (That doesn't happen here.) It was one of 21 plays that opened in August, 1921, a slow month it seems for September brought in 26 new plays.
On stage in Dorset Vermont at the Dorset Theatre Festival is a new look at Dulcy. It is part of the new artistic director’s mission to produce all of the Kaufman plays. I’m not sure if he intends to do them in order, but he has gone back almost to the beginning of the author’s 47 major pieces for this one. If he does do them in order of original production I hope he will be a bit more careful to maintain a truer sense of the period. Produced at the beginning of the jazz age, the production seems to be set a decade later. At least that is how it looks and feels. Hairstyles, clothing cuts and movement seems geared to the more accessible Depression years than to the early throes of the Mods and Flappers. The script talks of millionaires and even in its comedy ribs the concept of working hard. No one has much to drink; it is prohibition after all and this is a businessmen’s weekend at the Smith’s home in Westchester.
Dulcy Smith has invited the Forbes family for the weekend with the object being a merger between Forbes’ synthetic jewelry empire and her husband’s own business. She is also intent on hooking up Forbes’ daughter Angela with a man she believes to be in love with the girl. On hand is Dulcy’s brother William, and a man "from the office" both of whom also have feelings for Angela. To round out the group Dulcy has invited a millionaire she’s met at two recent parties, Schuyler Van Dyck. We also have a butler named Henry who has recently emerged from prison and who has a remarkable attraction for pearls. If this isn’t a 1920's bunch of folks, I don’t what to call them.
Unlike "I Love Lucy" which the program notes liken this plot to, there is no zaniness, no crazy plotting that involves the women in confusing their husbands and dissembling. Instead there is a steady stream of misunderstandings, misalignments and dull-witted errors in judgement on the part of Dulcy. A handsome cast cannot salvage what they can’t grasp, and they seem to miss the needed "charm" in their playing style to truly carry off the comedy here.
Cheryl Lynn Bowers plays Dulcy with snap, crackle and pop but without charm. Her voice is reminiscent of the silent movie star in "Singing in the Rain" as played by Jean Hagen. It is not the voice of a woman who can cast a spell, get her own way and finally resolve the issues that could separate her from her husband for good. Her husband Gordon is played by Brit Whittle who seems almost as confused by his role as he is by the situation Gordon has landed in thanks to the inept machinations of his wife. Saxon Palmer plays brother William with verve and with pluck and an excellent sense of 1921 and he gets the laughs and he gets the girl and he saves his sister’s often protruding tush.
Phillip Clark is a very good Mr. Forbes, but perhaps for this play a hint of the cartoonish wouldn’t have been amiss. His wife is played by Kelly Deadmon with an excellent sense of period style. Angela Forbes misses on all counts in the hands of Alexis Hyatt who seems to be from another era entirely.
Thomas Jay Ryan gives a hoot and a hollerin’ performance as "scenarist" Vincent Leach and Mark Alhadeff is a very funny Schuyler Van Dyck. Teddy Coluca almost steals the show away with his perfect exaggerations in facial and body work as he carries bags, steals pearls and does a host of other things as the butler, Henry. Ben Hollandsworth almost gets his role right and D.H. Johnson plays his part as though he was in a play.
What I am saying is that there is no consistent style at work in this production. It needs to be pulled together to give us the real period, the real comedy and the real emotions in the writing.
Nathan Heverin does a nice job creating a wide box set in period style with black curtains taking the upper half of the stage picture. He doesn’t give us the set described by the authors, but his alternatives do the best they can. Too many mismatched chairs, however, make this feel like a show done slightly on the cheap side, whether or not that’s true.
Theresa Squire’s costumes are lovely, but feel so 1930's that they remove credibility from the texture of the script.
Forsman has a sense of the play, but he has not brought to bear all of the elements needed to show us why this show was a hit in a year that produced "A Bill of Divorcement" with Katharine Cornell, George M. Cohan in "The Tavern," "Liliom" with Eva LeGallienne and Joseph Schildkraut, "Bluebeard’s Eight Wife," "The Dover Road," "Six Cylinder Love," comedy that ran 344 performances and a play called "The Demi-Virgin" which lasted 22 performances longer than "Dulcy." It was Kaufman’s second work on Broadway and it helped to create the legend that was the man. That was the play Forsman needed to bring to his stage this summer.
I hope that his subsequent Kaufman revivals will bring with them a sense of their origins and their place in history. He has some wonderful material to work with, and some very talented actors and designers to employ. I look forward to better things, but will have to content myself with this near-miss for the moment. Dulcy lives on in the scatter-brained antics of the Billie Burke films of the 1930s that this play tries to be. It should have been given a better chance to reflect its own period and its own origins.
A scene in Act One of Dulcy
Teddy Coluca as Henry and Cheryl Lynn Bowers as Dulcy
Dulcy plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont thruogh August 5. Tickets are $30-$35. The show plays Wednesday through Sunday and you can get full schedules and tickets through the box office at 802-867-5777.