In a way, he was. He put more than one over on many delighted audiences, and maybe never more so than with The Butter and Egg Man -- his one solo flight. The play is currently being revived by the Atlantic Theater Company with so many quick-tongued actors in the cast that if the famously dour Kaufman is rolling over in his grave, it's from laughter. Writing in the days when characters in comedies kept shouldering in, often just to take center stage for a few bright minutes, Kaufman dreamed up a couple handfuls of those types for his back-handed love letter to 1920s Broadway and the shysters and shlubs who populated it. With director David Pittu apparently seconding Kaufman on the notion of fast pacing, Tom Mardirosian, Michael McGrath, Julie Halston, David Turner, John Ellison Conlee, Amelia White, and six colleagues have taken on The Butter and Egg Man and are having their merry way with it.
Kaufman's story is not only simple, it's one of the oldest, about an innocent gulled by sophisticates who survives to show his exploiters that what goes around comes around. Peter Jones (Turner) arrives from Chillicothe, Ohio with something like $2100 in the bank and is talked out of $2000 of it by second-rate producers Joe Lehman (Mardirosian) and Jack McClure (McGrath) of Lehmac Productions. Jones's inheritance goes into a turkey called Her Lesson, starring -- as a trade mag headline on a show curtain put it -- "veteran newcomer" Mary McMartin. Maybe the show, which bombs on the road but becomes a hit into Manhattan, should have been called His Lesson, since Turner is wet behind the ears when he writes his check but learns quickly. He eventually finds another sucker to foot the bills with which he's become saddled and ultimately proves himself to be a student who outstrips his teachers.
Supposedly, one of the reasons Kaufman preferred working as part of a team was that he could hand over the gooier aspects of plotting, like the love story that was considered a requirement, to someone else. In The Butter and Egg Man, he's the one stuck with introducing a girl for the boy to meet, lose, and get. The woman here is Jane Weston (Rosemary Dewitt), Lehmac's loyal, if unpaid, secretary. In Jones, Jane sees a man with morals and therefore decides to stand by him, no matter what indiginities that may entail.
And how about a big hand for Julie Halston, who herein graduates from the reliable walk-on duties she's done recently in Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner and Clare Booth Luce's The Women. She plays Fanny Lehman, who's on to her husband but, as a former professional juggler, knows how to juggle his moods. Halston's approach to a throwaway line is tinged with the same kind of acerbity that made Eve Arden a Hollywood fixture. Watch out also for spotlight-stealing moments from Amanda Davies and Todd Buonopane. Rosemary Dewitt is a fine Jane and Amelia White, David Cromwell, and Robin Skye add to the rumbustious activities. All of them are lit well by Robert Perry, surrounded well by Anna Louizos's sets (one low-rent office, one claustrophobic hotel room), and dressed well by Bobby Frederick Tilley II. The getups that Tilley hangs on Halston are definitely not, if you know what I mean, Halston, but they're almost as big a scream as this actress is.
As newsman, playwright, actor, and director, George S. Kaufman knew the Great White Way and knew, what with the rackets being run by the shrewd and the foolish, just how off-white it could get. He was also one of those big-city sophisticates who want to think that small-town artlessness can still exist. Repeatedly in his works, those who hail from the sticks -- or the spiritual sticks -- triumph. Despite the knee-slapping comedies that Kaufman perpetrated on an eager public, he was said by some to have been depressed at certain periods of his life; if so, that depression may have had its basis in a longing to believe in the survival of innocence combined with an inability to really do so. He must have sensed that true innocence is a lost commodity, no matter how many sure-fire jokes he told. The Butter and Egg Man celebrates that innocence.
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