March 21, 2002

New plays on Broadway during the 1938-39 season included Lillian Hellmann’s The Little Foxes, Robert Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, to name just a few. (They don’t call them the good old days for nothing.) But leave it to the Mint Theater to choose a lesser-known gem from that same year to end their current season: No Time for Comedy, by S.N. Behrman. Though you probably aren’t familiar with this sparkling and unexpectedly insightful piece, it will almost certainly resonate with you more strongly right now than its more famous contemporaries. No Time for Comedy asks a spectacularly fundamental question—does a person have the right to sit on the sidelines and merely observe when the world seems to explode with violence and evil—and then serves up arguments pro and con with intelligence and wit and grand sophistication. Thought-provoking and entertaining, No Time for Comedy is also remarkably timely. In Kent Paul’s smart, stylish production, and with a splendid cast headed by the spellbinding Leslie Denniston, the Mint’s latest “worthy but neglected” play is a true find, one that needs to be on your spring theatregoing list.

No Time for Comedy takes place during a very eventful 24 hours in the life of playwright Gaylord Easterbrook. Gay, as he is known, is the successful author of a string of frothy hit comedies, the last three of which were written for his wife, Linda. It’s the fall of 1938, and Linda is looking for a new play to star in, but Gay has none; in fact, as No Time for Comedy begins, Gay is nowhere to be found. Linda and her maid, the crusty, dependable Mary, are ringing up Gay’s favorite haunts, expecting to find him hung over in some Broadway saloon.

Enter—unexpectedly—Philo Smith, a wealthy, middle- aged banker whom Linda met at a party the other night, with some most disturbing news. Gay, Philo says, is at this very moment at Philo’s house, being entertained by Philo’s young second wife Amanda. Amanda likes to inspire artistic men to realize their inner greatness, Philo tells Linda; both quickly agree that Gay—along with, perhaps, both of their marriages—is in some danger.

Linda leaps into action. Abetted by both Philo and her charming but shallow pal Makepeace Lovell, she sails into battle with Amanda, in the most wittily polite depiction of a catfight on stage this side of The Importance of Being Earnest. Gay’s dilemma turns out to be genuine and compelling: with the very real specter of fascism looming in Spain, Italy, and Germany, he has lost faith in the worth of the comic plays he has been churning out for years. He wants to write about important issues; he’s even talking about going to Spain himself, where the Civil War still rages, to gain some real-life experience away from the rarefied world he has heretofore occupied so comfortably.

And so while we’re not even looking, this well-made romantic comedy quite unexpectedly morphs into something genuinely substantial, considering fundamental questions of morality and responsibility. Long speeches delivered by Gay and Philo turn out to be not-so-thinly disguised arguments for and against American involvement in what would soon be World War II. And Gay’s entirely understandable crisis of conscience follows us home after No Time for Comedy’s curtain has rung down: finally each of us has to sort out what we think our obligations to humanity—and our fellow human beings— ultimately are. (The events of September 11 will no doubt color those thoughts; that’s why the Mint is so smart to mount this particular play at this particular moment.)

Yet Behrman’s remarkably skillful play remains resolutely Linda’s story, and her anchoring presence makes No Time for Comedy the completely satisfying comedy of manner and ideas that it is.

Director Kent Paul offers a sublimely good staging of the play, one that is rooted securely in the piece’s period and theme. The cast is marvelous: Leslie Denniston, whose work I have not seen before, is a revelation as Linda— gracious, sophisticated, and smart, she is the epitome of 1930s Broadway leading lady chic. Hope Chernov, as rival Amanda, proves very much her match; Diane Ciesla (Mary), Ted Pejovich (Philo), and Shawn Sturnick (Lovell) offer invaluable support. As Gay, Simon Brooking shows us both the surface suavity that has carried him through life thus far and the brooding intelligence that now gnaws at him underneath. Tony Andrea’s well-appointed sets and Jayde Chabot’s stylishly appropriate costumes provide the ideal environment for Paul’s fine realization of the work.

I love theatre that lets me lose myself in an engaging story filled with interesting, articulate characters; and I love theatre that lets me find myself, having confronted some fundamental aspect of the human condition. It’s rare for one play to do both: No Time for Comedy is one of those exceptions. Don’t miss it.