Merton of the Movies: Gone Soft

Local Arts Reviews

Merton of the Movies: Gone Soft

John Henry Faulk Living Theatre,

through July 15

Running Time: 2 hrs

Satire is a funny thing. At least it used to be. For satire is all about topicality, about the timely poke at the familiar. Satire skewers the esteemed, pops the balloon of pretension, blows down the doors of exclusivity. Even the word sounds like a sharp thorn, catching and tearing the garments of society's overvaunted ideals and idols, bringing all back to earth with a bit of a laugh. Add a dose of time to the mix, however, and what was once incisive ages and softens, reducing satire to something tamer, less funny, a little unsure of itself, nice.

Merton of the Movies, written in 1922 by George Kaufman and Marc Connelly, follows young naif Merton Gill from a little shop in Simsbury, Illinois to stardom on the silver screen. How this country has always adored moviemaking with an almost cult-like devotion! It's peopled with feed-store clerks and soda jerks wanting to make it in Hollywood. And the story of a nobody turning into filmdom's next big thing never fails to amaze us, despite our suspicions of the false glamour and hollow artistry that pervade studio life. It's not as if the subject matter isn't rife with satirical possibilities. Moviemaking is as ripe for skewering now as it was in the era of Kaufman and Connelly. So where did this production turn soft?

Director Norman Blumensaadt's vision for this Different Stages production sets the play in its period, the early Twenties, when, no doubt, audiences felt a sharp tweak at their assumptions, even as they howled at the play's humor. From today's vantage point, looking at characters now almost 80 years past, there is no feeling of that sharp tweak; too much of the play's topical humor has faded, rooted as it is in the shenanigans of 1920s movie life. The characters are simple, some mere types: the paternal yet slightly greedy shopkeeper; the blustering psychotic movie director; the pompous old stage-actor-turned-movie-extra; the abusive yet matronly woman power-broker-cum-secretary. These roles are nicely wrought by Mike Groblewski, Joe Walling, Beau Paul, and Kathleen Lawson, but there's nothing particularly compelling or humorous about them, given that they're grounded in an 80-year-old spoof.

As wannabe Gill, young David Higgins is handsome and earnest, but he has much to learn about stage business and timing. His play acting with two dressmaker's dummies lacks verve, and toward the play's end his overwrought states (drunkenness in one scene, chagrin in another) are a bit two-dimensional. With experience comes improvement, and Higgins should keep at it. Heather Barfield plays the young-girl-who's-seen-it-all who befriends Gill and maybe falls for him. Barfield is energetic and engaging, and keeps things rolling along when they are in danger of getting too soft.

Blumensaadt has staged this play, but there is a lack of direction: It's as if the company isn't aware just when scenes are meant to start or finish -- another softening of satirical incisiveness. Likewise, the play may have a period look and sound, but the actors have yet to truly embrace that period style, leaving the play in limbo: Merton of the Movies used to be a funny play, now it is nice. But it's not satire. Pity.

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Merton of the Movies, George Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Different Stages, Norman Blumensaadt, Mike Groblewski, Joe Walling, Beau Paul, Kathleen Lawson, David Higgins, Heather Barfield

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