The Mint Theater is devoted to unearthing forgotten plays. Its mission, according to its website, is to reclaim these plays “for our time through research, dramaturgy, production, publication and a variety of enrichment programs.” They have mined a worthy treasure in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ So Help Me God, a 70-year-old play that’s slightly tarnished by time but still golden. Watkins’s influence has not been wholly ignored by time. Though God never got its due back when she was alive, the playwright enjoyed considerable success; her The Brave Little Woman told the story of Roxie Hart and was adapted into an early dramatic version of Chicago, which provided the blueprint for the Bob Fosse musical. Shortly thereafter, Watkins became best known as a screenwriter.
In fact, God resembles one of the most famous movies of all time. But if this backstage drama about the rivalry between the leading diva of her time and an ingénue that aspires to take her place sounds more than a little reminiscent of All About Eve (or, perhaps, Applause, its later musical incarnation), it shouldn’t; Watkins’s play pre-dates Joseph Mankiewicz’s work by more than two decades.
However, God does suffer a bit by comparison. It feels more primitive than the better-defined Eve, in which two actresses fight to be stars and both end up losing a piece of themselves. God is a bit more lopsided. Kristen Johnston is Lily Darnley, famous and a force to be reckoned with. She is rehearsing a play, “Empty Hands,” scheduled to begin its out-of-town tryout run. This is to be the work that solidifies Lily as a “serious actress.” Desperate not to take any chances on the play’s reception, Lily makes demand after demand, changing lines and altering her character completely so that the audience will like her even better than they already do.
If that audience could see her behind the scenes, however, they’d surely run the other way. Lily is a monster, as her fan Kerren-Heppuch Lane (Anna Chlumsky) learns when she sneaks into a rehearsal. Before long, of course, Kerren assumes the role of understudy. But Watkins never makes the starlet’s talons as sharp as the star’s. While her very presence threatens Lily, Kerren is no match for her; unlike Eve, Kerren will not stop at nothing to become a star. She merely takes advantage of certain circumstances as they are thrust upon her, the way anyone would. Kerren is neither bad nor purely innocent. What she is is forgettable, and as a result, hard to root for. Meanwhile, though Lily is basically evil, she is also far more interesting. Thus, the central conflict between God’s two leads is a lose-lose.
Watkins’ skill is winning when pointed at the other backstage machinations, which I imagine were far more revelatory when God was written than they are to a Perez Hilton-saturated generation. Hurricane Lily creates a revolving door of creative forces. She plots to replace leading actor Jules Meredith (Kevin O’Donnell) with arrogant British actor Desmond Armstrong (Matthew Waterson), while actor Bart Henley (John G. Preston) fights to beef up his own role. The hoops that these men jump through are both farcical and familiar, and give the play much of its bite. I was particularly impressed by O’Donnell, who combined elements of self-awareness and doltishness for Jules.
Other supporting actors who round out the “Empty Hands” company help as well. Jeremy Lawrence is terrific as Blake, the stage manager who becomes a human pinball, bouncing from one dictate to another. So are Ned Noyes as George Herrick, a playwright forced to make one compromise after another until his work bears no resemblance to its original form, and Allen Lewis Rickman as Mose Jason, a producer who might as well be a general at war. Catherine Curtin as supporting player Belle is also spot-on.
Bank’s play moves great, even churning laughter from some of Watkins’ more dated dialogue, until he returns to his leading ladies. Johnston, a towering actress with a thunderous voice, makes Lily a perfect blowhard, and gets the physicality down adeptly (especially after Lily has consumed a good deal of vodka). Chlumsky can communicate Kerren’s determination, but not the fire that propels her to carry forth against such a considerable foe. The character never transforms in front of the audience. She just reappears having made new choices; Chlumsky can make Kerren’s individual scenes work, but she cannot bridge the sizeable gap between them.
It may be that both actresses are underserved by the material; Lily and Kerren have very little time alone to go at each other onstage until the climax in the third act, which proves problematic for several reasons. God is a three-act play, but there is no intermission between the second and third acts, and it takes an awkwardly long time to change the set (still, Bill Clarke’s design is terrific, as are Clint Ramos’ period costumes).
More importantly, the third act is only one scene long, and it isn’t very long at that. Has Bank trimmed down too much, or was there simply not that much going on during the show’s climax? One leaves wondering if some of Watkins’ observations – which are dead-right almost three-quarters of a century later – have lost some of their dramatic edge in this adaptation.
But God certainly is a work worth discovering, both for its entertainment and its historical value. I look forward to seeing the next rare gem that The Mint Theater digs up.