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The Butter and Egg Man
The Jean Cocteau Repertory company is dedicated to producing timeless plays. That includes such classics as Medea, but also classic comedies of more recent vintage -- like the current revival of George S. Kaufman's 1925 comedy, The Butter and Egg Man, the only solo endeavor by the man known as The Great Collaborator (his partners in a career full of hits included Marc Connelly, Moss Hart, Edna Ferber, Ring Lardner and Alexander Woollcott).
L-R: Christopher Black,
Amy Fitts, Craig Smith
(Photo: Jonathan Slaff )
If you've never been to the Cocteau's Bouwerie Lane Theatre, you might think that the seats have been angled especially to reflect all the angles of the Broadway sharks (a.k.a. producers!) whose machinations propel the plot. The deeply raked stage and orchestra always give a sense of actors and audience leaning towards each other and in this production this architecture underscores Kaufman's skewering of every day reality through its Broadway denizens' need and greed for money.
Kaufman was a master at creating stock characters to deliver his verbal zingers and act out the sight gags and other funny business that made him a virtual hit factory. As in June Moon (see links below), The Butter and Egg Man is a show biz version of David and Goliath, the country mouse outsmarting the city rats. The Goliaths in this instance are two dapper and not as smart as they think they are producers -- Joe Lehman (a cigar smoking, slick-as-oil Craig Smith) and Jack McClure (Harris Berlinsky, fine as the second banana to Smith's blowhard persona).
The dramatic complications start withsh poor new show. Enter the cash cow in the person of the title character (the term originated when a man with a Midwestern drawl dispensed fifty-dollar bills to all the dancers at Texas Guinan's El Fey Club and bought drinks for the house. After he told Guinan he was "a big man in dairy produce " she introduced him to the crowd as "a big butter ad egg man"). Peter Jones (Christopher Black giving an apt portrayal of the naif who turns out to be a quick study in mastering the flimflam of show biz) who's quit his hotel job to use an inheritance to realize his dream of -- you guessed it -- becoming a Broadway producer.
When Jones asks to see a script of the hit, in which the producers offer him a 49% partnership, he gets instead Lehman's own hilarious synopsis of the plot, a religious melodrama of predictable mediocrity. Along with the three principals in this enterprise we meet Lehman's saber-mouthed wife Fanny (Elise Stone) and to provide the romantic interest, Lehman's spunky secretary Jane (Amy Fitts) and the grandiose leading lady Mary Martin (Angela Martin). Once the show opens in Syracuse known as the Broadway tryout capital, we meet an assortment of additional and amusingly silly stock characters. These naturally include a temperamental director and a ditzy chorus girl.
Not content with one "butter and egg man", Kaufman invented Oscar Fritchie (Tim Deak in a brief but standout performance), this time enlisted by Jones. I won't give away the ending, but Fritchie's being in the hotel rather than the dairy business (like Jones) has something to do with it.
The design team does fine work, especially Irene V. Hatch who has dressed the cast in nifty and authentic costumes. The Butter and Egg Man isn't the best ever Kaufman nor does it have as many quotable lines as some, but it is an enjoyable precursor to his future major hits. Unlike the Drama Department's 1997-98 June Moon revival about a rube with song writing ambition, director David Fuller has opted not to delve into the darker shadows beneath the comic exterior. Instead he's mixed the butter and eggs to dish up a comic soufflé that's fluffy and lots of fun.
LINKS TO OTHER KAUFMAN PLAY REVIEWS
June Moon (Ohio Theater
) and again at Variety Arts
Merton of the Movies
The Royal Family
And watch for the Roundabout production of The Man Who Came to Dinner
|THE BUTTER AND EGG MAN
by George S. Kaufman
Directed by David Fuller
Cast: Christopher Black as the title character, Craig Smith as the unscrupulous producer, Amy Fitts as his "Girl Friday" and Elise Stone as the Producer's sardonic wife.
With Harris Berlinsky, Angela Madden, Marc Diraison, Jolie Garrett, Neil Shah, Kathryn Savannah, Etya Dudko and Tim Deak.
Set Design: Mark Fitzgibbons
Lighting Design: Izzy Einsidler
Costume Design: Irene Victoria Hatch
Presented by Jean Cocteau Repertory
Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery (Bond/2ndSts), 677-0060
Running time: 2 hours, including 2 intermissions (as per the original)
6/02/2000-6/24/200; opening 6/04/2000
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/08 performance