Theater Review: “Screwball” — Laughter’s Saving Grace
By Bill Marx
This is an indelibly zany concoction: part homage, part esprit de corps, part meditation on screwball comedy as a form of modest but invigorating cheer.
Screwball adapted by Beau Jest from Preston Sturges’s film Sullivan’s Travels. Directed by Davis Robinson. Performed by Beau Jest Moving Theater, featuring Jeff Blanchette, Jay Bragan, Lauren Hallal, Kathleen Lewis, Robin JaVonne Smith, and Lisa Tucker. At the Boston Playwright’s Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, closed.
Beau Jest Moving Theater’s lovely Screwball! is a very funny show, but first let’s talk about its daring, which is unusual in these days of theatrical safety first, last, and always. This is a live-action, minimalist recreation of Preston Sturges’s marvelous 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels. Some of the film’s scenes are played (sort of) verbatim, others are excised completely, and new material and corny songs (“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”) have been added. Behind the Beau Jesters there’s a screen on which is shown (usually) silent snippets of the movie. The segments don’t include the major performers, though you can glimpse, for a moment or two, Joel McCrea and some of the second bananas, including William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn. Of course, we are talking about golden fruit. Sturges assembled one of the greatest cadres of comic actors ever. Alongside Demarest and Pangborn in Sullivan’s Travels there’s Eric Blore, Robert Greig, and Porter Hall. Shots from other screwball comedies pop up as well, including Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby and, be still my heart, Groucho Marx in Duck Soup. Director Davis Robinson has put his cast in a very awkward position — they are performing in front of the gods of laughter (or at least their ghostly traces). The potential for self-immolating pratfalls is as high as an elephant’s eye.
That Screwball is pretty much a delight from start to finish is a tribute to the comic dexterity of the cast and the nervy imagination of Robinson and crew. They have come up with an indelibly zany concoction: part homage, part esprit de corps, part meditation on screwball comedy as a form of cheer. This kind of mirth is too modest to change the world, but you will not be able to change the world without it. The company began working on the piece in 2019, but it seems to me it has particular resonance given the lingering effects of COVID — and how many of our stages are grasping at the “old normal” of escapist entertainment. The Beau Jesters seem to be suggesting that, despite evidence to the contrary, comedy should not be counted out as a force for transformation.
Of course, the political significance of farce is at the heart of Sturges’s film. Its protagonist is a director of popular Hollywood laughfests in the ’30s, here a female called Sully, who wants to leave Hollywood and learn what trouble is so she can make a gritty film that reflects the reality of hard times. Dressed as a hobo, Sully tries to mingle with the downtrodden, though her efforts fail miserably because of protective studio interference (a bus filled with photographers and publicists) and meeting up with the attractive Cricket. The two quickly grow to care for each other, but Sully stumbles into danger when she miscalculates the goodness of human nature once too often. In the film, the hero finds himself trapped in a sadistic Southern chain gang, which leads to a magnificent scene in a Black church where the shackled prisoners watch, with glee, a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Beau Jest pulls away from that revelation (which is problematic to pull off on stage) and provides a gentler, but still moving, way for Sully to discover the power of laughter.
The Beau Jest staging is driven by plenty of playful invention and high spirits. At one point the characters, in the form of Barbie dolls, are dunked into a plastic bucket doubling as a swimming pool. Robin JaVonne Smith has McCrea’s earnestness down but not his goofiness; Kathleen Lewis is glamorously humane as Cricket. All the other parts in Screwball are inhabited by a dandy cast that supplies plenty of robust clowning — Jay Bragan, Jeff Blanchette, Lauren Hallal, and Lisa Tucker. The key here is finding a way to invest quicksilver comic turns with amusing detailing, and Bragan is the standout. He has a lanky physical presence that he can twist and bend like a crazed pipe cleaner. Robinson’s staging is fluid, though there are some longueurs in the final third of the show. I missed the pathos (and political zing) that Sturges uses to bring about Sullivan’s realization. But Screwball is as much a commentary on the genre as it is an imitation.
Given the perilous times we are in, rising economic inequality, democracy in danger, white supremacists on the march, the war in Ukraine and the new Cold War, and the climate crisis (which is much farther along than the mainstream media wants you to think), what is the role of comedy? Formulaic fodder, such as rom-com and musical-com, provides superficial relief from the blues. For me, cleansing theatrical guffaws can take three forms (at least). There’s political satire that is “a lash, a whip, a spear, a dagger.” Little chance of that coming around since it confronts audiences with the fact that they have contributed to the mess we are in. Then there are the resigned chuckles of a Beckett and Ionesco at the sight of our suicidal throttling of the natural world that sustains us. Finally, there is the kind of refreshing merriment Screwball offers — jokes in the service of carpe diem, rejuvenating gusts of laughter that, let’s hope, will send us off to act.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.