You are probably not familiar with Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1929 play So Help Me God!, but you’ve seen it before. A little 42nd Street and a lot All About Eve (which surprisingly didn’t exist until nearly 20 years later), So Help Me has many of the same ingredients—an aging and difficult star, a wide-eyed yet opportunistic ingénue, lots of backstage back-stabbing—yet none of the gravitas.
Watkins’ most famous play provided the groundwork for the musical Chicago, but this forgotten farce also bitingly sends up the idea of celebrity: the lengths people will go to get it, and how having it affords and rewards ridiculous behavior. The stock market crash of 1929 shuttered the show before it reached Broadway, but even decades later the comedy still retains some blunt and bawdy zingers.
Where stage actress Lily Darnley is concerned, there’s no shortage of outlandish activity. The great leading lady manipulates, boozes, and sleeps her way into adored stardom, mercilessly terrorizing her castmates and coworkers with poisonous quips and ferocious glares. As played by returning Dallas treasure Julie Johnson, Lily is every bit the glamorous, cruel force she should be. Her hungover entrance in Act II nearly stops the show.
But soon after the beginning of the three-act rollercoaster, it all starts to feel hollow. Director Terry Dobson runs his cast up, down, and over Jac Alder’s sparse set like wind-up toys. The frantic effect is sometimes rewarding in a vaguely slapstick way, but the relentlessly overblown characterizations eventually diminish the play’s effect. Much like Lily’s cultured stage voice, it’s all for show.
When presented in small doses, most of the supporting characters do offer opportunities for a genuine laugh. Familiar faces Lulu Ward and Gordon Fox ham it up as fellow actors, while Nadine Marissa Richard tosses off some of the show’s sassiest lines as Lily’s put-upon maid. Don Alan Croll chomps his cigar with aplomb as the constantly rewritten play’s realistic producer; Ian Patrick Stack glides around with an icy coolness as the potential (replacement) leading man. Unfortunately, Bruce Richard Coleman’s universally unflattering costumes cover up any hint of fun (with the exception of the tiny, lavish coats for Frou-Frou, Lily’s spoiled pup).
The “more is more” maxim makes it tough to build to a satisfying conclusion when the show already starts out at a sprint. The great reveal of humanity’s innate capability for deceit would sting more if the contrast were sharper, but as it is the familiar archetypes never stray far from their pre-assigned roles. Perhaps it’s better to just abandon any hope of real characterization, let the barbs fly, and enjoy America’s true blood sport: the theater.
Image: (Back row from left): Nicole Weber, Bob Hess, and Don Alan Croll. (Front): Julie Johnson. Credit: Jeffrey Schmidt