Garrick Theatre. Transferred from the National Theatre, Olivier. Directed by Edward Hall
A marvelous, pull-out-all-the-stops production of this vital American classic. One feels that as long as there is a Hollywood — a Tinseltown — unless it acquires sense, perspective, and seriousness, this play will live on. What is remarkable is that the character of Hollywood is so engraved on our consciousness that there is no need to go to Hollywood to experience it at first hand. As the program note explains, neither George S. Kaufman nor the twenty-four-year-old Moss Hart had ever set foot in the place where they collaborated to bring out this “spot-on” satire.
Hall has added some great musical-comedy numbers, reminiscent of the Rockettes and Busby Berkeley musicals at key points. This is a sumptuously well produced show in which, however, mere spectacle never gets in the way of the vacuity of the Hollywood talkie that is the perspicuous target of Hart and Kaufman’s trenchant yet humane, almost wistful, satire. The costumes are especially delicious, particularly in the case of the celebrity film critic and gossip Helen Hobart, played in regal fashion by Issy Van Randwyck (can that really be her name?), as tall and statuesque as they come, and Herman Glogauer, played with brilliant aplomb and panache by David Suchet, who wears the loudest suits I have ever seen, as if his tailor is either his best friend or worst enemy. The choreography is a cross between quintessential Broadway and the Hollywood extravaganza equivalent. And the American accents were nearly flawless, except for the cumbersome New York accent of Lawrence Vail, the catastrophically transplanted Manhattan playwright who is signed to a six-month contract at Glogauer Studios, only to be swallowed alive, a cipher to Glogauer and his blithe, unknowing receptionist alike. It’s the role Kaufman himself played in the first production. Jonathan McGuinnis is not quite up to the challenge of playing a character nearly done in from the psychological damage of what has happened to him, and his New York accent sounds vaguely middle-European. David Suchet’s, in contrast, has exactly the vaguely Austro-Germanic tinge to vowels and consonants that betray his foreign origins without at all getting in the way of a fluent voice of colossal self-importance and smiling condescension.
But the real star of the show is Adrian Scarborough, as George Lewis, a simple naïf who blunders his way into success, with an uncanny way of snatching victory from the jaws of disaster. This is perfect casting, and he carries on his broad, rounded shoulders not only the weight of the satiric pressure of the nicely crafted action of the play, but the additional burden — happy, as it turns out — of the humane theme of native American goodness that keeps this work (and all other collaborations of this lucky pair) from any hint of a destructive ethos. We can laugh at the pretense, the falseness, even the vacuous center at the heart of Hollywood glamour, but in the end we can still love it.