So Help Me God!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 3, 2009
Lily Darnley is the sacred-monster kind of star that exists only in legend. We hope. She's larger than life in every way: she's clearly the kind of revered Theatre Star that audiences love to worship, but she's also a spoiled, self-involved, all-id creature who always gets her own way because...she always get her own way. She is, in other words, fabulous fun, and the play in which she is the main character, So Help Me God!, is delightful entertainment because she's such a splendid creation.
So Help Me God! begins in a Broadway theatre in the early autumn of 1929, where Lily Darnley is in rehearsal for a new play, scheduled to start its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia in just two weeks. Trouble is, the play is in trouble. A lot of trouble. And most of it is caused by Lily herself, who thinks nothing of rewriting entire scenes—with the playwright in the room, suffering in silence—proclaiming that her audience doesn't want to see her do this, and she would never ever say that. Though she had once eagerly embraced the serious O'Neill-ish drama that novice author George Herrick tore out his guts to write, she is now all business, discarding, shaping, remodeling, and very likely ruining the play in her own image. Director Dave Hobart and producer Mose Jason are pretty much powerless against the freight train that is Lily.
By the time we get to Act Two, the company is in Philadelphia. The play has morphed into the kind of turgid drawing room melodrama that Patrick Dennis's fictional star Vera Charles used to specialize in. There's a new director, and a new leading man is being shipped in behind the old leading man's back.
Act Three happens on opening night in New York, three weeks later. Will Lily and Company somehow pull this thing off and make the show a hit?
There is one further complication: a sweet young thing from the American Heartland named Kerren-Heppuch Lane. We first meet her in the play's earliest moments, a starstuck kid who is hoping to wangle an audition in Miss Darnley's company. She not only lands the part; she is signed as Lily's understudy. And though she really is just a lovely, naive young woman who desperately craves fame and fortune, she learns the tricks of this particular trade quickly enough to become a very big thorn in Lily's very sensitive side. All About Eve—similar but definitely different—is so much a part of our consciousness that it's hard not to view Kerren as being the same as Eve Harrington. Actress Anna Chlumsky falters in the role by confusing these two characters, in fact. But where Joseph L. Mankiewicz was writing in Eve about an actress/monster turning into a loving woman upon receiving her comeuppance from someone who is indeed her equal in ambition and talent, Maurine Dallas Watkins is really only interested in satirizing the mores of theatre and the manners (or lack thereof) of its royalty in So Help Me God!
The play has some of the cynical amoral wisdom of Watkins's most famous work, Chicago. But mostly it's a crackly, funny valentine to a brand of theatre that's half real and half apocryphal. The best gags are assigned to the long-suffering company members, like stage manager Blake, second lead Bart Henley, and especially character actress Belle, who, as played by Catherine Curtin, earns several well-deserved big laughs. Jonathan Bank has staged the play briskly and with affection, on a sumptuous set by Bill Clarke. Lush period costumes are by Clint Ramos.
The show can only work with someone equal to Lily Darnley in the lead. Fortunately, Bank has Kristen Johnston, best known as Sally on the TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun. She's a beauty, of course, and also very funny; she's the only gorgeous, statuesque blonde actress I can think of who you can believe would slug someone in the puss if they crossed her, which is why she turns out to be ideal casting here.
Bank's Mint Theater Company is actually presenting the New York premiere of So Help Me God!, the original production having been derailed 80 years ago by the Stock Market Crash. It's nice to see it in a first-class production after such a long delay.