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Writer’s Block

Theatre Hopkins’ Screenwriter Satire Can’t Get Past its Weak Script

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 4/20/2005

Boy Meets Girl By Bella and Sam Spewack

At Merrick Barn through May 8

The problem with Boy Meets Girl, a Depression-era Hollywood satire about a pair of wiseacre screenwriters who believe they have the recipe for a blockbuster—“Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl”—is that it neglects to follow its eponymous formula. Neither the rat-a-tat dialogue from boy/girl writing team Bella and Sam Spewack, nor a breathless Theatre Hopkins effort led by its own Tinseltown veteran, John Astin, can mask the want of emotional narrative in a script that’s little more than a collection of musty jokes hanging from a limp satirical clothesline.

L. Carlyle Benson (John Astin) and Roberta Law (Liz Gilbert) are a team of screenwriter hacks whose job is to churn out cookie-cutter scripts for cowboy star Larry Toms (Loren Dunn). Instead, the duo prefer to torture with taunts and practical jokes their dimwitted leading man, high-strung studio exec C. Eliot Friday (Anthony Blaha), and any other Royal Studios minion who happens into Friday’s office during story conferences.

When pregnant commissary worker Susie (Elspeth Kursh) faints while delivering lunch at one of these sessions, she awakes to discover Benson and Law have hatched her unborn son, Happy, as Larry Toms’ future sidekick, much to the chagrin of the actor, whose fading star will not likely outshine a scene-stealing baby.

After Baby Happy does indeed become a box-office moneymaker, Benson and Law vie with Toms and scheming talent agent Rosetti (Anjana Muralidharan) for control over Happy’s career. Totally improbable (yet somehow totally predictable) complications, twists, and shenanigans ensue for the remaining two acts. There is an interesting boy-meets-girl plot buried here, between Susie and doe-eyed film extra Rodney Bevan (James Zwerneman), but it’s relegated to subplot status when it ought to be center stage.

Better yet, the writing partnership between Benson and Law ought to have been mined for material, especially since director James Glossman’s interesting decision to cast a woman as Law makes the pairing appear informed by the stormy relationship between the play’s real writers. As Graham Yearley points out in his dramaturgical notes, Bella and Sam Spewack, best known for penning the book to Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me Kate, had a tempestuous relationship that was most productive when it was least romantic. But the writers have skirted any boy-girl issues between their alter egos, leaving the chore of maintaining audience interest in the story to a stream of sight gags, midget jokes, and an increasingly hysterical plot that comes off by the third act as more desperate than dextrous.

As Benson and Law, Astin and Johns Hopkins sophomore Gilbert have as much chemistry as their neutered lines will allow, though they too frequently stumble over the mile-a-minute dialogue—a problem that plagues the entire production. Gilbert manages to exude both butch bluster and femme warmth in a role portrayed by Pat O’Brien in the 1938 film adaptation. As with many Theatre Hopkins productions, the duty of anchoring the performances falls to Astin, who delivers a typically professional effort, though neither his part nor his portrayal have much bite to their bark.

The barking is loud, however, across the board. As eternally frazzled studio honcho Friday (a takeoff of legendary 20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck), Anthony Blaha turns out an energetic—at times earsplitting—performance. When in the third act Friday yells out, “I just want a period of utter silence!” an elderly audience member on Sunday turned to her friend and moaned, “Me, too.” Noteworthy as the cowboy actor is Loren Dunn—a recent Hopkins graduate who has stayed on as Astin’s protégé at Theatre Hopkins—who manages to imbue thick Toms with the most humanity of any of these cardboard characters. He also looks the part.

Glossman’s staging is not as speedy as the rapid-fire dialogue requires, and there is frequently too much air between the screwball bits, most notably whenever studio composers Green and Slade (Matthew Viator and Sam Anderson) march onstage for comic or musical relief. And for some reason the bulk of the third act is performed in the aisle of the tiny Merrick Barn theater, which means that much of the action occurs behind the backs of much of the audience, more of a distraction than a necessary diversion from Bill Roche’s very nice set.

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