The setup: Love Goes to Press was a hit in London's West End in 1946, and a flop on B'way in 1947 -- five performances. The Mint Theatre Company in Manhattan specializes in unearthing forgotten plays and giving them fresh life, and has done the same with this comedy, presenting it in June of this year. Now Houston gets the regional premiere, courtesy of Main Street Theater. The execution: Two female journalists, Annabelle and Jane, old friends, meet in the press room of an army base in northern Italy in the midst of WWII, and scheme to get scoops on other war correspondents. Some of the military resent the intrusion, while others welcome the novelty of female companionship. Romantic complications ensue, as Joe Rogers, former lover of Jane and also a reporter, is on the base, with his fiancée, Daphne, an airhead actress. These are the ingredients for a screwball comedy, but this soufflé never rises.
Given its age, and the holidays, it's appropriate to admit that this work is a chestnut, and, sad to say, a turkey as well. It has frenzy but not humor, with too many characters and not enough characterization. There are skilled actors on stage, but some are just miscast. Elissa Levitt does well as Annabelle, but the talented Joe Kiirkendall, who was so good in The Coast of Utopia earlier this year, plays Joe Rogers by resorting to shouting -- and he has a stentorian voice -- to express the conflicting emotions of a poorly written character, dominated by a fiancée he doesn't like and given to rage. Meant to be a Hemingway type, he's more George C. Scott on a bad day.
Joel Sandel plays a Yorkshire dairy farmer turned soldier who falls for Jane, ably played by Crystal O'Brien as a quasi-Katherine Hepburn type. He proposes to Jane, who inexplicably accepts the offer to live on a rural farm, with a once-a-year visit to Scotland as a treat. This lengthy passage is meant to be a running gag that builds, as Jane gradually realizes the horror of being a dairy farmer's wife, rising at 5 a.m., but since the farmer is written as a prig, and played earnestly by Sandel, it goes nowhere, except on and on. The audience, light-years ahead of the writing, never believes a word of it. Director Mark Adams might better have cast John Strickland, wasted here in a minor role, as the dairy farmer -- Strickland demonstrated sexual charisma, which the farmer badly needs for plausibility, earlier this year in Cactus Flower.
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Jacqui Grady is excellent as the actress, making a triumph of a minor role, and lightens the mood of stilted fake whenever she enters. The writing does have some delicious irony, as her misadventures turn into brilliant successes. There are laughs, but not enough to warrant attendance. With the two male leads seriously miscast, director Mark Adams never gets this off the launch pad. And where was he when Kirkendall decided to shout his lines in this intimate theater?
The play is written by Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles, both successful war correspondents, and, I suspect, with better casting and direction, it's a better play than we see here. But not good enough to have its peaceful rest in the theatrical graveyard disturbed.
The verdict: If you go, savor the brilliance of Jacqui Grady in a role that might have been a throwaway, and the diligent efforts of Elissa Levitt and Crystal O'Brien to rise above so-so material.
Love Goes to Press continues through December 23 at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or contact online at MainStreetTheater.com.