A Return to Screwball

A rendition of a 1954 romantic comedy about the humorous toils of bachelorhood, the most significant limitation with Retro Productions’ The Tender Trap is the weight of its contextual framework. Whether or not an audience member is familiar with the play or its 1955 film version with Frank Sinatra, one is bound to expect outdated gender politics, eager-to please dialogue and a neatly packaged ending. But although the work itself delivers few surprises—women in the audience should expect to cringe at its hastily drawn conclusion—the intellect behind its dialogue and the devotion of its performers make for an experience that rings as close to authentic as the limitations of the material allow.

Set inside a Manhattan bachelor pad, The Tender Trap follows the romantic mishaps of Charlie Reader (Ric Sechrest) and his childhood friend Joe McCall (Jim Kilkenny) who escapes his suburban family life under the guise of a new business plan. Charlie is splitting his time between a number of women, all eager to demonstrate their potential for wifehood, but it’s professional musician Sylvia Crewes (Elise Rovinsky), whose poise and effortless humor lead Charlie to contemplate a deeper commitment—and attract Joe’s attention as well.

As Charlie, Sechrest doesn’t possess Sinatra’s playful sex appeal, and instead chooses to play up his boyish lack of self-awareness and consequent relatability –his harmless immaturity, in fact, recalls a modern Judd Apatow hero. Kilkenny, meanwhile, emphasizes Joe’s preference for sarcasm and his lived wisdom. The contrast between the characters is effective: banter between Charlie and Joe makes up some of the play’s most entertaining moments, as we can easily imagine a shared history between the two best friends. Sechrest and Kilkenny even manage make dated lines like “holy mackerel” sound effortless and convincing.

It’s the women, however, who add unexpected depth to the production. Casandera Lollar is charming as Julie Gillis, a woman in her early 20s who is eagerly laying out her future as a housewife. Lollar successfully channels an element of wit into a role that could just as easily have descended into cliché. As Sylvia, Elise Rovinsky displays mature beauty through her controlled gestures and a dancer’s posture. Charlie helplessly bosses her around like his other conquests, but she appears to be in on the joke. Having some of the productions most memorable lines works in Rovinsky's favor as well: A monologue in which she reveals her fears about being single at 33 is a jarring moment in an otherwise lighthearted work.

The quality of its performances is, without a doubt, what makes The Tender Trap memorable. In addition to the strong lead performances, supporting players like Alex Herrald as erratic scientist Earl Lindquist help establish the production as a powerful display of New York’s dramatic talent.

An outdated feel prevails through The Tender Trap; like It’s a Wonderful Life or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it hints at subtle tragedies behind its formulaic story arc. That these societal questions aren’t fully addressed is likely to frustrate a viewer. The Tender Trap doesn’t make us nostalgic for a time gone by, but its convincing performances extract real intelligence from its bubbly dialogue.

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