Review Foster Festival - Screwball Comedy by Norm Foster

Posted Jun 26th, 2017 in In the News, Reviews

Screwball Comedy 2017, World Premiere, Norm Foster Theatre Festival

(Full Cast, Screwball Comedy, 2017) Review by Christopher Hoile

Screwball Comedy by Norm Foster
Directed by Patricia Vanstone

June 26, 2017 (St Catharines, ON) 


Bosco: “Hey, being around you two is giving me a love rash”

The Norm Foster Theatre Festival, the only theatre festival in the world devoted to a Canadian playwright, has opening its second season with the world premiere of Foster’s Screwball Comedy.  Those who know Foster only from the first season of the Festival should prepare themselves because the play throws a screwball itself.  Quite unlike Foster’s plays that usually focus on ordinary people whose quirky relationships are underpinned with melancholy, the goal of Screwball Comedy is both to satirize and pay homage to the type of film comedy of the title that flourished from the 1930s to the mid ‘40s.  Some of the classics of this genre are Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) all directed by Howard Hawks and The Lady Eve (1941) and Palm Beach Story (1942) directed by Preston Sturges.

One of the great delights of Foster’s new play is that he has the character types, plot developments and especially the period language of such comedies down perfectly.  Foster sets the action in 1938 and takes the newspaper setting from His Girl Friday, except here the leads are not a divorced editor and ex-reporter but a newly met star reporter and a would-be journalist.  In Foster, Mary Hayes (Cosette Derome), made redundant at the perfume counter of a department store, seeks to follow her real passion of reporting even though she has no experience.  Meanwhile, star reporter Jeff Kincaid (Darren Keay) is being chided because his editor Mr. Godfrey, nicknamed “Bosco” (Kevin Hare), feels his work has been going downhill fast.

When Delores (Eliza-Jane Scott), the wealthy owner of the newspaper, wants Bosco to send a reporter over to dig up dirt on the woman her son plans to marry, Bosco arranges a deal that Mary and Jeff will both get the facts and compete on who writes the better story.  The result be that Jeff will either keep his job or lose it to Mary.  Sending a male and female team to cover a society wedding is, of course, reminiscent of The Philadelphia Story (1940), where a male reporter and his female photographer sidekick get involved with the high society people they are supposed to be covering.

When Mary and Jeff arrive at the newspaper owner’s estate, they discover that there are two weddings forthcoming.  Not only does Delores’ do-nothing son Chauncey (Hare again) plan to marry the suspected gold-digger Gloria (Scott again), but Delores herself plans to marry an old acquaintance Reginald (Hare again).  Mary and Jeff decide to divide and conquer, but Jeff’s interview with Gloria and Mary’s with Chauncey turn up nothing.  So are Delores’ fears unfounded?  Or will Mary’s years of working at the perfume counter help her sniff out the real story?

Screwball Comedy 2017, World Premiere, Norm Foster Theatre Festival

(Cosette Derome and Darren Keay, Screwball Comedy, 2017)

Cosette Derome and Darren Keay are perfect in their roles as Mary and Jeff who, in typical screwball fashion, hate each other’s guts before they fall for each other hard.  Both are adept in physical and verbal comic timing and Foster gives both wonderful opportunities to show off their talents since neither escapes his satiric eye.  While we root for Derome’s Mary as she tries to shatter the glass ceiling of her day, we can’t help noticing that she’s actually a terrible interviewer.  Mary claims to have a mind like a steel trap, but when it comes to retaining information Derome’s shows us with the straightest face that it’s really more like a steel sieve.

As for Jeff, Keay is great at setting up Jeff’s image of himself as an expert womanizer, but his interview with Gloria is a hoot after Keay shows Jeff rapidly losing confidence as one sure-fire ploy after another blows up in his face.  Jeff also seems to lack Mary’s vocabulary and assumes any word he doesn’t know, like “nuptials” or “rebuffs”, has a dirty meaning.  In short, the two with their complementary failings make them an ideal couple.  Even though we know it’s part of the genre, Derome and Keay believably show how the mutual enemies’ mutual attraction wins out step by step over their mutual dislike.

The flaw of many stage adaptations of old movies is that the author fails to make full use of the possibilities of the stage.  Here Foster is imitating a specific period genre but he still makes sure that it is inherently theatrical.  This he does so primarily through having one actor play three roles and another play four.

I’ve seen Eliza-Jane Scott on stage several times before but no previous role has given her such a showcase for her abundant talent.  She makes the three characters she plays so completely different in voice and body language that you could easily think the roles were played by three different actors.  The first is Jonesy, Bosco’s secretary, who is cheerful, high-pitched, slightly dim but deeply devoted to her tyrannical boss.  The second is the Dolores, eccentric, imperious, innately conscious of her rank and power and unafraid to wield them to get her way.  The third is Gloria, whom Scott plays just like the glamorous low-voiced femme fatale from a film noir.  Gloria’s snakelike languor only means she may strike at a second’s notice. What is so remarkable about Scott’s performance is that although all three are movie stereotypes, Scott inhabits all three so fully that she makes them her own.

Screwball Comedy 2017, World Premiere, Norm Foster Theatre Festival

(Kevin Hare and Eliza-Jane Scott, Screwball Comedy, 2017)

Kevin Hare doesn’t quite achieve the same degree in distinguishing his roles as does Scott though he is still engaging.  His Bosco, looking very much like J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker’s boss in the Spider-Man comics, is the typical film comedy Editor-in-Chief, stentorian, irascible and seemingly always on the verge of apoplexy.  His second role is as Peter, Dolores’ peculiar butler.  Unlike Bosco, he is quiet, slow, and deliberate and, unlike any film counterpart I can think of, makes a show of grovelling to those he serves while complaining about his lowly status at the same time.  His bitter, long-winded speeches before departing win him frequent exit applause.  His third role is the fairly slimy Reginald, who, to be fair to Hare, is not as well developed as the other characters.  The fourth is the paradoxical Chauncey, whom Hare acts as noticeably younger than the previous three.  In perhaps a twist too many, Foster has Chauncey turn out to be completely unlike his mother’s description of him and all the more interesting because of it.  While we feel we know Bosco and Peter too well, we also feel we don’t really know Reginald and Chauncey well enough.

The real joy of Screwball Comedy, beyond its film references and Peter Hartwell’s spot-on period costumes and gorgeous Art Deco sets, is the play’s language itself.  Foster obviously loves the highly artificial way that people speak in screwball comedy films.  Though the movies take place in nominally realistic settings, the characters speak in a way that no real people ever spoke.  They all are articulate, they all reach for wild metaphors at a moment’s notice and they all talk a mile a minute.  Part of the reason for this was the increasing enforcement of Hollywood’s self-policing Hayes’ Code to make sure the movies stayed “clean”.  (Say, isn’t Mary’s last name Hayes?)  To get around the Code, Hollywood writers had to be more inventive since characters couldn’t swear or make detectable reference to sexual topics –  hence even lowly characters’ frequent use of such rhetorical devices as allusion, metaphor and hyperbole.  Foster captures this snappy poetical style perfectly and is unafraid to push it into parody.  One of the show’s most memorable lines is when Mary tells Jeff, “I’m gonna kiss you so hard your cousin in Texas is gonna get a tax refund”.

Besides, imbuing the script with all the colourful slang of the period, it is Foster’s sheer inventiveness with the language of the screwball genre that would make me come back just to revel in it again.  It helps that director Patricia Vanstone has helped the cast deliver this delightfully heightened artificial lingo as is it were second nature.  Though Foster’s usual melancholy undertone is largely missing in Screwball Comedy it is not entirely absent.  Foster sets the action in 1938 for a reason.  When Jeff exclaims how good things are he mentions that there is no war.  By the following year World War II would start and the lighthearted world Foster so lovingly depicts might linger for a few more years on film but would definitely be over in real life.

Screwball Comedy may be atypical of Norm Foster’s usual style but it provides a fantastic showcase for four talented actors and provides one of the best translations of screwball movies to the stage, far better for example than John Guare’s His Girl Friday of 2003.  Norm Foster is well known and loved in Canada and around the globe for his signature style that the Festival calls “humour with heart”.  Yet, it is possible that this pitch-perfect recreation of a bygone genre may win him success with the few theatres that haven’t yet given him a try.

©Christopher Hoile
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

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