The Dark Side of the Moon
In 1929 New York City was the center of the world, especially for a songwriter wanna-be like Fred Stevens, the goofy guy in the middle of George Kaufman and Ring Lardner's June Moon. This silly, antiquated romp, now at Main Street Theater, tells the story of a young man who must learn some of life's lessons the hard way. To that end he slithers through the back rooms of a few smoke-filled speakeasies, mistreats a good home-spun woman and gets bamboozled by a bottled blond who used to be a low-down actress. Of course, he also manages to write "June Moon," his first hit song, in his spare time.
Old-hat as all this might sound, the story is not without promise. There is a scandalously dark lining to this puff ball of a play. Certainly Kaufman and Lardner, who spent their long and prolific careers rubbing elbows with everyone from Irving Berlin to George Gershwin smack in the middle of the New York theater scene, knew scads about the down and dirty side of the music biz. And they were smart enough to include at least the hint of that darkness in the script. Unfortunately, Main Street's production isn't so smart. Instead of exploring and reveling in the play's dark side, director Steve Garfinkel has chosen to bleach it out of existence.
Dreamy-eyed Stevens gets himself into hot water as soon as he steps off the train in New York City and meets up with the seedy characters who could, given the right direction, provide the pulsing black heart this revival so badly needs. Paul Sears is a down-on-his-luck one-hit wonder, still scraping by off his famous song, "Paprika." We first meet him at home, where he's busy fighting with his embittered, wisecracking wife, Lucille. Round and round they go about money, his lost talent and her disappointment. The way she sees it, if he doesn't produce another hit soon, she's doomed to spend the rest of her life dead broke, cooped up in the apartment, wearing last year's fashions. Her sister Eileen is even worse. The gorgeous, tarty blond sees men as nothing more than her next meal ticket. And Stevens is a wet-behind-the-ears sap who makes the perfect mark. With his pocket full of dough that he saved up while working in Schenectady, he's a grifter's dream.
The dialogue for these bad guys is scored with lame Jack Benny-style one-liners and malapropisms (when someone's thinking real hard, they're "consecrating"). Still, there's something in the writing that makes the women so naughty and the men so desperate that the 70-year-old script seems to have some life left in it.
But Garfinkel's hackneyed direction flattens every joke and sheds light on every shadow. In the first place, many of his casting choices are off. Robert Leeds is fine in the relatively thankless role of the wishy-washy Paul Sears. But Ryan Leach, with all his gosh-and-golly niceness, is simply too slow and lumbering to carry the weight of the show as our hero Stevens. The first long scene between Stevens and Edna (Tracy Ahern), a girl he meets on his New York-bound train, fails to establish any chemistry between the supposed young lovers. Instead, the play starts out with a lot of toothy grinning and all the fire of a wet match. "I like a man to have a middle name," coos Edna, batting her eyelashes. The lukewarm love affair sets a plodding pace from which this production never quite recovers.
Sears's striving wife and her greedy sister Eileen are supposed to seduce Stevens into taking them out on the town, but this seduction is the sort that no man would fall for. As Lucille, Karen Ross pouts and prances about with her nose in the air like a very mad cartoon character. Yet she portrays none of the diabolical anger that drives Lucille to misbehave in the way the character eventually does. And as her sister, the lovely Jen McCoy-Miller is so stiff that at times she seems not to know what to do with her arms.
On the other hand, Thomas Baird, as the wise-guy pianist with a heart of gold, finds just the right pitch for the one- liners he tosses into the story. And Gavin Starr Kendall plays Benny Fox, the writer who's so eager for a hit that he'll put a tune to anything, with the perfect twist. He finds that spot between hilarity and desperation that is the show business life. It's too bad that neither one of these characters is on stage long enough to jump-start the show.
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