by Ed Malin · May 22, 2015
Cast of Butter and Egg Man | Kyle Connolly
This year on Red Nose Day, an occasion for raising money to help young people living in poverty, I went to see a classic play about theatrical swindling and other common practices. It’s Retro’s routinely excellent revival of George S. Kaufman’s 1925 comedy hit, The Butter and Egg Man, directed with gusto by Ricardo Rust. On a series of beautiful sets designed by Jeff Stander, nothing, not even Prohibition or morality, can stop the show from going on. If you’re a fan of subsequent Kaufman masterworks, of Mel Brooks, or have attended a Republican National Convention, you will surely see that it’s a “wow.”
As the plot thickens, two delightful slimy Broadway producers, Joe Lehman (the magnetic Brian Silliman) and Jack McClure (the chameleonly Matthew Trumbull) are looking for a way to save their new show. It may be in poor taste and contain long musical numbers (“goyish” is, I believe, the descriptive word) but, if they can at least get some capital and start their tour with a bang in Syracuse, they will be in the clear. Joe’s wife, the independently wealthy and vocal Fanny Lehman (the dynamite Heather Cunningham) harangues her husband, who admittedly is about to lose lead actress and grandiose personality Mary Martin (the flappery Shay Gines) for lack of coin. Note: women having money and speaking up, such things were apparently very funny 90 years in the past. They need a Butter and Egg Man; you know, a sugar daddy or angel investor or comparable. Their ingénue assistant, Jane Weston (the impeccable Alisha Spielmann) shows in Peter Jones (the fresh-faced Ben Schnickel), a visiting Buckeye who sports a straw boater hat that suggests he is a decade behind. Some great salesmanship convinces Peter that he should think on his feet and get in on 49% of this next great piece of the zeitgeist. Before you can say gesundheit, Peter has met Mary, written a few more checks, and started to go gaga for Jane.
Over Syracuse way, an opening-night party forms in Peter’s hotel room. Jane realizes that Peter has bet his inheritance on this show, and is so sad to think of his impending passion and penury. But Peter is no holy fool, no, he has made it his business to visit the performers in their dressing rooms during intermission, give them notes, and in general to treat the venture as art. As the company gets blotto, Joe yells at Peter to cease his meddling. Then again, Joe can’t abide fancy director Cecil Benham (the uproarious Chad Anthony Miller) and Mary has issues with the starlet Peggy Marlowe (the towering inferno of Sarah K. Lippmann). Still, it is shocking that Joe would rather ask visiting producer Bernie Sampson (the mustachingly-gifted Seth Shelden) and local switchboard operator Kitty Humphreys (the tough-as nails Rebecca Grey Davis) what’s wrong with the show than listen to Peter. Peter’s observation that the stage orchard was not planted the way it would be in Ohio is surely not without merit. Finally, Peter steps up to save Jane’s and everyone else’s honor: he will hopefully within a day arrange to buy out the other schmucks and shepherd the production to greener pastures. Fortunately, frustrated hotel man Oscar Fritchie (the far-seeing Ryan McCurdy) has been dreaming of going into show business. Joyfully, Peter and Jane show Oscar how to think on his feet and whip out his check-book.
Back in New York, Peter, Jane and Oscar occupy the office and reap the benefits of the show, and the orchard, they have sown. No one knows why the show's a hit (it's likely a reflection on humanity, a maven remarks) but Fanny informs them that a police crackdown will only make them a succèss de scandale. Then, uninvited attorney A.J. Patterson (the meticulous Seth Shelden) informs Peter of a pending plagiarism proceeding related to the production. As happens often in this clever story, the producers have 15 minutes to find a solution. Will they be able to get Joe and Jack to buy them out? Is there an even better investment just around the corner? Does a loving partnership make for better deception? Who is really evil when everyone's a cheat?
Well, this show still works and that must be why Retro did it; a 1980s Broadway revival attests to its vitality. After I figured out the lingo, and intuited that human relationships are still based on power struggles, I found myself at home in the world of roaring meshuganehs. Viviane Galloway's period costumes are delicious. Ricardo Rust throws in some charming touches, just the way Jack twirls his hat, or Oscar arranges furniture in the hotel he detests, or A.J. wipes the desk with his kerchief before putting his briefcase down, or how the cast does a little dance to "Ain't She Sweet" during scene changes. There are some great lessons about what people, and Ohioans, really want. Evidently, they want us to laugh.