Carl Forsman, artistic directorof the Keen Company
Carl Forsman, artistic director
of the Keen Company
Went to see P.G. Wodehouse's Good Morning, Bill as performed by the Keen Company and fell in love with it even before the curtain rose. That's because I read artistic director Carl Forsman's program note: "Keen Company was recently described in a prominent New York magazine as having 'the oddest mission of any theater in the city.' I agree. We do plays that say human beings are really good at heart, and we rail against the notion that to believe this represents some form of naïvete. Routinely our culture seems to confuse pessimism and detachment with sophistication. I think sophistication requires believing in the good in this world. My experience tells me that violence and ugliness -- while useful for selling newspapers -- don't represent the moments from our lives that are most amazing, or touching, or dramatic. Or funny."

On another page is printed the mission, which begins: "Keen Company produces sincere plays. We believe that theater is at its most powerful when texts and productions are generous in spirit...to invigorate the theater with productions that connect us through humor, heart, and hope."

Send me my mail there! Forsman's troupe reflects my point of view. And maybe I have many kindred spirits, for the full house seemed inclined to appreciate this show from the moment the curtain went up. And I mean the moment that the curtain went up, for the crowd applauded Nathan Heverin's set. Okay, we've all been to thousands of shows where the audience applauds the set; but the Keen set is, technically speaking, a modest one, with only five curtains, one table, two chairs, one chaise, and an oversized flower vase. Yet the audience applauded because it's all done with artistry and taste. Or maybe they applauded because Keen attracts those who are good at heart themselves. (By the way, the crowd also applauded the second act set, which is far more ornate yet still modest. And they were right to do so.)

My hat is off to Forsman, not only for starting a company with such a nice mission but also for perfectly directing Good Morning, Bill. After all, a 1927 British comedy (based on a Hungarian one) that centers on a misunderstanding (mostly because one person won't let another finish a sentence) could be awfully arch -- enough to make that structure in St. Louis seem like a hairpin. Forsman, though, has directed it with love and sincerity as per his company's mission, and I hope that I see even one other production this season that's as flawlessly staged.

The play certainly fits the company's credo, for four of its five principals are indeed good at heart. Ten years ago, Lord Tidmouth borrowed his pal Bill's umbrella; he's never brought it back but now, here he is, finally making good on the loan. We all know many more people who would have thrown the thing away in the ensuing decade, but this Lord turns out to be noble in more ways than one. And though he has been married three times -- which suggests an adulterous spirit -- in each of the unions his wives did the philandering, not he.

Bill Bannister's a nice guy, too -- especially for someone who's rich and powerful, thanks to that successful stock and dairy farm. He's attracted to Sally Smith, but when he discovers that she's a doctor, he's astounded. (It's 1927, a time when female physicians didn't grow on trees.) Bill is impressed when Sally says with modest confidence, "I enjoy every minute of my life. I earn every bit of pleasure, which is why I enjoy it." It's great that he isn't threatened by her, but inspired. Just as Helen Hunt's character impacted Jack Nicholson's to become a better man in As Good As It Gets, Bill eventually decides to match her seriousness of purpose.

Armbruster and Wigginsin Good Morning, Bill(Photo © Leslie Lyons)
Armbruster and Wiggins
in Good Morning, Bill
(Photo © Leslie Lyons)
Bill's Uncle Hugo is a doctor, too. He'd planned to go golfing until he was told that his services were needed at this nephew's house. How many doctors would make a house call today under any circumstances, let alone when they were on their way to the links? Only the good at heart would do so. But it pays off, because Sally is a golfer, too, and Hugo gets a few tips from her on how to improve his game. These include using a lighter touch rather than brute force; in other words, be nicer to the ball.

Every play must have conflict, so there has to be some sort of villain. But, really, Lottie Higginbotham's crime is that she wants to marry well once again, and whether or not she loves the man she lands (Bill) isn't too important to her. She eventually gets down to her underwear, but only because she's being examined by a doctor. When the Lord re-enters and sees Lottie in that condition, he immediately holds up his hand to his eyes. I'm telling you, these are all nice people, beautifully played -- no, perfectly played -- by Heidi Armbruster (Sally), Nick Toren (Lord), John Vennema (Hugo), Bridget Ann White (Lottie), and Jeremiah Wiggins (Bill). How wonderful also to hear so much youthful laughter coming from the crowd. I don't know why so many twentysomethings wanted to come to such a nice show, but I'm glad they did and even happier that they so enjoyed themselves.

How interesting that Carl Forsman had to return to 1927 to find a "good at heart" play; two seasons ago, he did rediscover one from the '40s in The Voice of the Turtle, for which production he received a Best Direction Drama Desk nomination. That's an impressive accomplishment for a guy whose peripatetic troupe seldom plays in a venue that seats 200. It's one thing to get a Tony nomination for Best Direction, for there you're only in competition with a couple of dozen Broadway projects at most; but if you're up for an award given by the Drama Desk, which considers Off-Broadway and even Off-Off-Broadway shows now and then, you have to compete with literally hundreds of productions. Yet what Forsman did with Turtle, a neglected wartime comedy with two good at heart characters out of three, got him recognized.

I wonder what Forsman is going to do for an encore. Alas, plays with characters that are good at heart grow on fewer trees than female doctors did in 1927. What's more, so many of these venerable plays were written in the era of large casts. How amazing it is that Good Morning, Bill -- which has a wonderful curtain line, by the way -- has only seven, what with a maid and a page boy dropping in every now and then.

Dear Ruth has 10 characters, and many of them are good at heart. Carl, here's hoping that your company grows so rich and famous that it eventually can do a musical -- though I wouldn't advise that Keen do either the straight play or musical version of Kean, about famed 19th century actor Edmund, for he wasn't very good at heart. Better you should do Me and My Girl, where almost every character is nice. Perhaps you're destined to do that one, because it includes a character named Sally Smith -- just as Good Morning, Bill does -- and she's just as good at heart.

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