Heidi Armbruster and Jeremiah Wigginsin Good Morning, Bill(Photo © Leslie Lyons)
Heidi Armbruster and Jeremiah Wiggins
in Good Morning, Bill
(Photo © Leslie Lyons)
You can bet that the Wodehouse Society, which held its 13th annual international convention in Toronto only a month and a half ago, has now planned a field trip to Manhattan's Lower East Side. That's where Keen Company artistic director Carl Forsman has unveiled the New York premiere of P.G. Wodehouse's 1927 comedy of mannerly romance, Good Morning, Bill. Keen, indeed! It was keen of Forsman to have rummaged for the all-but-forgotten 76-year-old script and keen of him to have pulled off such a sparkling production on what has to be a budget the size of a Spode teacup. It was keen in the first place of Wodehouse to have written this poker-faced comedy about love among the idle and not-so-idle upper-class English. But then, Wodehouse was always keen about his works. (However, he wasn't so keen about his political decisions during World War II, when he made questionable broadcasts over English radio from his home in occupied France.)

The fervent Wodehouse Society members -- 150 to 200 of whom can apparently be expected to show up at any tub-thumped P.G.W. event -- will likely find themselves surrounded at Good Morning, Bill by delighted others who share a love of the man who played with words as if they were shuttlecocks and/or by newcomers who have only just heard what an inimitable wit he is. Everyone will be delighted by the production, which was apparently designed with twinkles in their eyes by Keen Company's usual team of challenge facers: Nathan Heverin on sets, Theresa Squire on costumes, Josh Bradford on lighting, Stefan Jacobs on sound.

It would be a mistake to make a case for Good Morning, Bill being one of the all-time great comedies. It's really, as is so much of Wodehouse's work, a trifle. (In addition to his novels, short stories, and libretti, Wodehouse wrote 16 plays.) Yet keep in mind that the English use "trifle" to describe a particular kind of dessert. Good Morning, Bill is delectable as it goes down, if not entirely nutritious. The play fits comfortably into a line of manor-house comedies, serving as something of a link between Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest and Philip Barry's Philadelphia Story. Bill Paradene (Jeremiah Wiggins) and Lord Tidmouth (Nick Toren), a couple of light-hearted and more or less light-weight Englishmen not unlike Wilde's Jack and Algernon, come into contact with Dr. Sally Smith (Heidi Armbruster), who's as icy to men as is Barry's Tracy Lord. The circumstances of their encounter are too silly to go into here, but the result is that Bill loses his heart to Sally, while Lottie (Bridget Ann White), the conniving flapper who thinks she's landed the lad, looks on.

That all happens during the first act, when Bill's Uncle Hugo (John Vennema), a physician, is called in for medical consultation and proves to share his enthusiasm for his work with Sally but also shares with her a love of golf. In the second and third acts -- played here with a pause between them rather than an intermission -- everyone, with the exception of Lottie's maid (Jenny Mercein) and page boy (David Standish), is at the Paradene country estate. Sally has been summoned by Bill, who feigns illness. Complications ensue and assumptions are mistakenly made, but these are resolved so that the predictable happy ending may occur.

With Wodehouse, as with all great stylists -- he's indisputably one of the greatest who ever worked in the English language -- it's not so much "what" as "how." Bill's earnest passion for Sally, Sally's cool detachment from affection, Lord Tidmouth's wry attitude toward a life of ease, Uncle Hugo's devotion to golf...it's the turns of phrase, the off-kilter comments in the characters' expressions that count. "Young man, can you keep a secret?" Uncle Hugo asks Lord Tidmouth. "I don't know," Lord Tidmouth replies, "I've never tried." Pouring out drolleries as if decanting Drambuie, Wodehouse doesn't precisely disguise the thinness of his storyline. Not that true love necessarily runs thin; it's more as if he's simply saying of the folderol, "Heigh-ho."

Along came Bill: Armbruster and Wiggins(Photo © Leslie Lyons)
Along came Bill: Armbruster and Wiggins
(Photo © Leslie Lyons)
Since Good Morning, Bill is a product of the '20s, a time when women were declaring themselves as they hadn't before, observers may wonder about Sally and Lottie. The latter is depicted as a scheming madcap in flirty dresses. She's played that way, too, by Bridget Ann White, who's asked to kick up a shapely leg throughout the proceedings and does so with verve. Sally is presented as an admirable professional, and Heidi Armbruster plays her accordingly -- at first, that is. True to the conventions of career women illustrated on stage and screen right up through the '40s, the good (and good looking) doctor melts like ice cream in the sun when she realizes that she's fallen for Bill head over stethoscope. It's a dramatic turn that might not be shown as quite so sappy nowadays, if shown at all, although Armbruster tosses it off nicely. (This trim and crisp comic actress bears an uncanny resemblance to screwball comedy expert Carole Lombard, which certainly doesn't hurt in a piece of this sort.)

The men at the center of the piece also have their roles well under control. Jeremiah Wiggins doesn't look like Fredric March, Lombard's vis-à-vis in Nothing Sacred, but he has the March touch. He keeps the comedy buoyant even while Bill pants in pursuit of Sally. Speaking of pants, Wiggins has to remove his in one scene, and they have a zipper on them. Perhaps they wouldn't in 1927, but costume designer Theresa Squire may have had difficulty turning up a period-correct suit. Whether Lord Tidmouth would wear spats when lounging in the Paradene rooms is another question. No matter, since the reliable Keen team player Nick Toren delivers every one of his character's lines with smiling sangfroid; for much of the play, he wears a brown velvet smoking-jacket of sartorial splendor. John Vennema, ruddy and balding, fulminates to the point where steam might come out of his ears, and he's unflaggingly amusing. As Lottie's long-suffering retainers, Jenny Mercein and David Standish are economical and fine. Incidentally, no dialect coach is credited, but the accents are righty-o.

The title Good Morning, Bill fits the enterprise neatly, as ticket buyers will understand by curtain. Another perfect fit is that of Wodehouse and the Keen Company. Artistic director Carl Forsman, who has yet to make a false move with the more-than-fair fare he's selected to put on view, knows exactly what he's doing and how to go about doing it. His mission -- stated in his program notes, as always -- is to "invigorate the theater with productions that connect us through humor, heart, and hope." In times when it's easy to be cynical about the state of the world, this is a noble aim, and Forsman achieves it nobly.