NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
One tends not to think of “Preston Sturges” and “theater” together very often. The fact is, however, while Sturges was one of the great filmmakers of our time, he was also a terrific playwright. An Academy Award winning screenwriter, he’s best known for directing (and also writing) classics like The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. Sturges’ genre was the romantic comedy, but there was always a screwball twist, a little soupçon of slapstick, though not to the depths of Chaplin, Keaton or the Marx Brothers, who were the masters, of course. He was known for putting the brakes on the romantic bits just before they got too sappy, making his films accessible across all genders and age groups. What is less known is that he started his career, and his style, as a playwright, and many of his plays were eventually turned into films. His second play, written in just six days, Strictly Dishonorable, was a huge Broadway hit in 1929, and was a film by 1931. This, in the height of the Great Depression. Now in revival, presented by The Attic Theater Company at The Flea, it’s easy to see why Strictly Dishonorable was such a success. It’s a funny, sweet, light, entertaining little ditty of a play. And director Laura Braza does it great justice.
The play clearly fits into a bygone era (it’s got the sharp-talking theatricality of an old black and white film, where people say “saaay,” talk fast and wear high-waisted pants), but its themes still resonate. Isabelle (Keilly McQuail), a young southern flapper and her stiff, New Jersey fiancé Henry Greene (Thomas Christopher Matthews) stop in to a speakeasy run by Tomaso (Christopher Tocco) after a night on the town. Isabelle clearly has a taste for adventure which Henry is indulging, much to both his immediate and eventual chagrin. She wants to try all the wild New York things she’s heard so much about, and the one speakeasy patron, Judge Dempsey (John Robert Tillotson), and the staff, find her charming and easy to accomodate. Isabelle also has a passion for opera, and when Gus (Michael Labbadia), an Italian Count and famous opera singer (Isabelle’s favorite, in fact) arrives, she is smitten—by his exotic good looks—then falls head over heels when she realizes who he is. He, too, falls for her, but initially only as a potential fling. It is her witty reparté and deep sincerity that eventually draws him in further. When Henry storms off in a drunken rage, Gus offers her his apartments upstairs for the night’s lodging, admitting that his intentions are “strictly dishonorable.” His inability to follow through on that promise twists the play into the romance that it truly is at heart.
Strictly Dishonorable starts with the advantage of being a sharp script with terrifically witty dialog, but this production breathes life into it, allowing it to transcend the period and making us realize the scenario could have been played out only last week in any bar in Manhattan. Like so many recent arrivals in the city, Isabelle is bright-eyed and excited, seeking adventure. Ms. McQuail plays her delightfully. At first awkward in the new environs, she adjusts herself and becomes more charming and compelling as she settles in. Despite some insignificant uneven acting and unconvincing accents, the rest of the cast is strong as well: in particular the amusing William John Austin as Officer Mulligan, who is sent by Henry to search for the “kidnapped” young lady; and Mr. Tillotson as the barfly/judge whose conflicted interests play out on his face so well that we feel his dilemmas. And as the speakeasy owner Mr. Tocco is the perfect straight man, never playing for laughs but getting them anyhow, straight out of central casting circa 1931. Liz Sherrier’s set is wonderful, simple and straightforward, but period correct and authentic without being elaborate. The same goes for Travis Chinick’s costumes, particularly Isabelle’s beautiful beaded flapper dress.
It’s not often one gets a chance to see Strictly Dishonorable (it’s not even available as a DVD on Netflix), or a play of its mettle, as its style and tone is so far removed from us now. But it’s a fine reminder of how enjoyable a light, yet sophisticated play can be without getting us too mired down and keeping us laughing all the while.
Strictly Dishonorable. Through August 10 at The Flea Theater (41 White Street, between Broadway and Church Street, Tribeca). www.theflea.org