December 8, 2009

The deliciously sour “So Help Me God!,” a long-lost comedy from 1929, provides the same startled pleasure that comes from discovering a good, pre-code Hollywood film. If you’re an addict of Turner Classic Movies, you’ve surely stumbled upon those sassy, gritty American flicks from the early 1930s, made before the hand of official censorship massaged the studios to the same constricted standards of morality and, often, sentimentality. (They’re the ones where the young Barbara Stanwyck was allowed to sleep her way to the top without getting killed.)

Like those movies, Maurine Dallas Watkins’s “So Help Me God!,” which opened on Monday night at the Lucille Lortel Theater, derives much of its energy from a white-hot cynicism that’s as angry as it is amused. A backstage story of a back-stabbing diva (played here with a gourmand’s relish by Kristen Johnston), this strychnine-laced bonbon makes other theater satires of its era look like fluffy marshmallows, including George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s “Royal Family,” now in revival on Broadway.

That’s because Ms. Watkins, who died in 1969 and is best known today for writing the 1926 play that inspired the musical “Chicago,” appears to have felt very little affection for her livelihood. And it’s downright shocking to encounter a farce about the theater from between the wars that doesn’t soften up at the end and pay tribute to the grit and spunk of Broadway babies. “If I met Christ himself on Broadway, I’d know it was Judas in disguise,” says one character. She means it.

The very belated Manhattan premiere of “So Help Me God!,” which was derailed from the road to Broadway by the stock market crash of 1929, is the work of the Mint Theater Company, which has been digging up and polishing seldom-seen theatrical jewels since 1992. As staged by Jonathan Bank, the troupe’s artistic director, Ms. Watkins’s play is basically allowed to speak for itself, without conceptual winks or camp flourishes.

The voice that emerges is very much its own, though the plot evokes a host of other plays and movies about putting on a show (“42nd Street,” “All About Eve”). So does the roster of archetypes assembled here: the bewildered academic playwright, the gruff stage manager, the aesthete director, the glad-handing but ruthless producer, a couple of vain leading men and, of course, the narcissistic star and the naïve ingénue who longs to supplant her.

The kid who comes to Gotham to make it big, Kerren-Heppuch Lane (she knows the name will have to go) is portrayed by an appropriately earnest Anna Chlumsky (who was a child star in the “My Girl” movies). In the opening scene, Kerry, as she’s called, sneaks into a rehearsal of the new vehicle for her idol, the impossibly glamorous and famous Lily Darnley (Ms. Johnston) and winds up staying, with consequences that, in outline at least, are familiar.

Like those sweet dancing fools played by Ruby Keeler, Kerry progresses from intoxication to disillusionment to despair to determination. What makes this formula fresh is Ms. Watkins’s refusal to let anyone emerge as likable — not even, in the end, little Kerry, whose bended-knee prayer to become a star ends the first act and gives the play its title.

Though Lily is certainly the nastiest creature onstage, that’s only because she has the most power. All the characters are of the “every man for himself” school and do their devious best to improve their status. In the meantime, the virtuous little play called “Empty Hands,” written by a very green author (Ned Noyes), is altered into the kind of overdecorated claptrap that Miss Darnley’s fans demand.

Ms. Watkins, who had covered murder trials for The Chicago Tribune, brings a journalist’s eye for the compromising detail to this business we call show. (Her portrayal of the working styles of two directors of quite different sensibilities is specific and hilarious.) But she also had a playwright’s musical ear for trade lingo and period slang that rivals that of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in “The Front Page.”

Here’s Belle (Catherine Curtin), a blowsy character actress, as rehearsals begin: “Honest, I’m so nervous I need a new brassiere.” And here’s Lily, explaining to her press agent exactly how the reviews should read regarding everyone else in the cast: “All they should say is, ‘Miss Darnley was ably supported.’ ”

Ms. Johnston, may I say, is ably supported. Actors love few things more than portraying ego-driven actors and their swinish associates, and the cast members here inhabit their roles with zest and, more surprisingly, unforced credibility. No one goes over the top, except Ms. Johnston, and how could she not? She’s Lily Darnley, a gorgeous megalomaniac who combines the less attractive features of Margo Channing and Norma Desmond.

Though best known for the sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” Ms. Johnston is a savvy stage actress (excellent in the New Group revival of “Aunt Dan and Lemon”). She understands the tricks at Lily’s command — from synthetic sincerity to switched-on sex appeal — and she doesn’t soft-pedal them. (Lily kissing her own reflection is an obscene spectacle.) The female impersonator Charles Busch, who would no doubt kill for this part, should look to his laurels.

The original script by Ms. Watkins, who subsequently shifted to screenwriting, has been trimmed, but the show still drags at moments, and it goes limp in what should be a knockout final scene. And while Bill Clarke’s sets and Clint Ramos’s costumes are more than serviceable, the anachronistic mood music (“Que Será Será”?) adds an unwelcome taste of easy camp. So does the photo collage of famous actresses’ eyes that frames the stage.

But such marginally jolting elements don’t keep you from savoring a show that tastes sweet precisely because it’s so bitter. Ms. Watkins portrays a Broadway where commercialism always trumps art, producers pander to an audience’s lowest intelligence and stars get away with absolutely anything — because they’re famous, damn it. How reassuring to think that should she revisit her old stomping grounds today, she’d feel absolutely at home.