Clare Boothe Luce
Clare Boothe Luce
I have a few theatergoing goals. I want to see a show in each of the 50 states (41 so far). I want to see every show that has won a Pulitzer Prize (only 17 more to go). I'd like to attend a performance of every show that ran more than 500 performances on Broadway. (Yeah, you say, good luck with Florodora and La Plume de Ma Tante.) And I'd like to see every one of the shows whose scripts have been included in the Best Plays books, a figure that is now approaching 1,000.

Robert Armin is going to help me out in reaching that last goal on Monday night, when he presents a reading of Kiss the Boys Goodbye in the West End Theatre at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (263 West 86th Street.) Never heard of the play? It's by Clare Boothe Luce, whom we most know and love as the author of The Women, a titanic hit from the 1936-37 season. After that show closed as Broadway's 15th longest running play, it became a terrific movie. What I particularly adore is that the film credits state, "as presented for 666 performances in its triumphant run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York." Imagine today a movie version of a play bragging about the Broadway run and even telling you what theater the show played!

Kiss the Boys Goodbye opened on September 28, 1938 and played 286 performances at the recently demolished Henry Miller Theatre. Armin tells us the plot: "The whole county is talking about the casting event of the decade: Who will portray Velvet O'Toole, the epitome of Southern aristocracy and charm, in the movie version of the smash Civil War novel Kiss the Boys Goodbye? Lloyd Lloyd, a hot young Hollywood director, is on a train heading for New York with his big discovery, Cindy Lou Bethany, the saccharine-sweet daughter of a Georgia congressman. Rumor has it that she's a shoo-in for Velvet once she passes muster with the film's producer, Herbert Z. Harner. But Lloyd really has other plans; he hopes that once Harner gets a look at Cindy Lou, he'll be turned off enough to hire Brooklyn-born Myra Stanhope, the studio's slightly tarnished star attraction, whom Harner has declared box office poison but with whom Lloyd is having an affair.

"Cindy Lou's unveiling is to take place at the Westport home of Horace and Leslie Rand. The editor of the sophisticated humor magazine Manhattan Man, Horace has also invited Madison Breed, a left-wing newspaper columnist; B.J. Wickfield, Breed and Rand's stuffy, conservative publisher; and 'Top' Rumson, Leslie's handsome but naive, polo-playing cousin. Tagging along with Rumson is Myra Stanhope, tipped off by Lloyd. She'll use this weekend to secure the role of Velvet O'Toole for herself -- at any cost."

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? But Luce had more on her mind than spoofing Gone with the Wind and its would-be nationwide search to find the ideal Scarlett O'Hara. Says Armin, "Kiss the Boys Goodbye was supposed to be a political allegory about Fascism in America. Luce wrote in her introduction to the published play that 'when -- or if -- Fascism comes to America, she will come so prettily costumed in red, white, and blue as to be practically indistinguishable from a music hall's Fourth of July performance Rockette, than which nothing could look more charmingly, happily, uniformly American.' For this reason, Luce chose as her symbol of American Fascism the most ideologically vacuous and sociologically elite of all models: the Southern Belle. Luce felt that a clear political analogy existed between the post-Civil War South and the Germany of the 1930s, so she compared the suppression of the Southern blacks with the similar oppression of the Jews of Europe. The ritualistic terror of the Ku Klux Klan's lynchings and cross burnings were no less abhorrent to her than the Nazi purges then taking place in Germany. But when critics and audiences saw Kiss The Boys Goodbye simply as a delightful send-up of the search for Scarlett, Luce felt she'd failed to create a political allegory."

Adds Armin, "While Luce's broad, comic burlesque has lost none of its entertainment value over half a century, the obviously left-wing politics of her play's hero, Madison Breed, made the play virtually unproduceable in a Cold War atmosphere of political paranoia. With the collapse of the Soviet Communist threat, it may now be possible to view this long-neglected comic delight as an historical remnant from a more politically volatile age."

Armin is very much into resdiscovery. Some years back, he staged the 1957 comedy Say, Darling, with songs by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green; the original play version of My Sister Eileen, with a cast of 27; and the James Thurber-Elliott Nugent comedy The Male Animal, for which he revised the script to eliminate the stereotypical "colored maid on the phone" who'd kept the play from being revived for decades. Now he hopes to revitalize interest in Kiss The Boys Goodbye.

Although the play was used as source material for a 1941 Paramount movie musical of the same title that starred Mary Martin and Don Ameche and yielded a title song by Frank Loesser and Victor Schertzinger, very little of Luce's original play was retained for the film. "A great deal of the dialogue would never have made it past the Hollywood censors in 1941," Armin says. "It's all very risqué, with a great deal of sexual banter and quite a bit of off-stage shenanigans as well."

The play's original cast featured several actors who went on to successful careers in film and television, including Hugh Marlowe (All About Eve), Sheldon Leonard (The Dick Van Dyke Show), and Benay Venuta (Annie Get Your Gun). It was directed by none other than Antoinette Perry, for whom those June awards are named. The cast for Armin's reading will include Michael Rupert (who is appearing later this week at the Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie in The Man in the White Suit, the new musical by Urinetown creators Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann) as well as Ian August, Justin Bohon, Donna Lynne Champlin, Tom Riis Farrell, Lawrence Kleiber, Missy Matherne, and Nicole Ruth Snelson. For reservations and/or more information, visit KissTheBoysGoodbye.com.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]