We’re never out of sight or earshot of a piano in “June Moon,” the 1929 Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman comedy that opened last Friday at McCarter Theater. Set during the pop-culture revolution of the 1920s, when music seemed to make the nation run, songs are everywhere , in the air and in the body language of its flappers and fast operators. A honky-tonk piano rag greets the audience as they take their seats, and reams of sheet music purr for attention, festooning every surface of the proscenium arch.
“June Moon” tells the sentimental tale of a hapless (and witless) provincial, Fred Stevens, endearingly played by Geoffrey Nauffts. From the first funny one-liner to the last loony malapropism, we accompany Fred on his scorching brush with New York City, and his narrow escape from the clutches of a grasping, fallen woman. All this before he is safely delivered into the clutches of “a nice (material) girl.” Directed by Mark Nelson in association with New York’s Drama Dept., this is a bittersweet period piece for which even the most callous
theatergoer will probably find a soft spot.
En route from Schenectady to New York to seek his fortune on Tin Pan Alley, proudly clutching the leather suitcase that is a farewell gift from his pals at G.E., Fred falls into conversation with Edna (who prefers her nickname, Eddie), an animated, up-to-date girl played with wide-eyed wonder by Jessica Stone. Each finds themselves in the train’s posh parlor car courtesy of the caring and cash of family and friends. The pretty Eddie, with her modern crimped bob and old-fashioned upstate morals, is aloof , for at least a minute , before setting her sights on the Broadway-bound, would-be lyricist.
Fred has a letter of introduction to the (formerly) great Paul Sears (Michael Countryman), composer of the hit sensation, “Paprika” , “When you write a song like `Paprika’ you never have to worry again,” announces Fred to his even less experienced fellow-traveler. Little does the pair know that Sears and his restless wife Lucille (Becky Ann Baker) have fallen on hard times, having consumed whatever profits they ever saw from the song, and are now stuck at home on a Saturday night, without even the price of a movie ticket.
Sharing their apartment and Lucille’s restlessness is her sister, Eileen, a lithe, grasping vamp of a woman, played to the hilt by Tasha Lawrence, who’s on the rebound from her fling with the powerful music publisher and Sears’ employer, Mr. Hart.
Arriving at the Sears apartment on his way to work , that is, in evening attire, complete with boutonniere , is the pianist Maxie, a pivotal role impeccably performed by Albert Macklin. This veteran of the Tin Pan Alley scene has seen it all. With the detached poise of a true outsider, Maxie has a wisecrack for every leading line; yet also steps forward to rescue Fred from entrapment by this predatory crew.
An equally clear-eyed observer of the scene, we imagine, was Ring Lardner, the humorist and sometime newspaper man who wrote all the show’s songs and outrageous lyrics , from Fred’s unlikely hit “June Moon” (“do you notice the rhyme?”) to the earsplitting “Hello Tokyo.” The cornball plot is a perfect match for these terrible songs.
At McCarter a nifty set takes us effortlessly from the railroad parlor car to the musicians’ rooms that look out on New York in `29 , with Times Square aglitter in Squibb and Chevrolet signs, and the sexy skyscrapers that would soon assist in the demise of its ruined investors. Adding to this production’s style are the “bad girls” who get all the great clothes , from their handkerchief hemlines and rakish hats right down to their black silk underwear.
On opening night there were lots of laughs but the timing of the performing ensemble was uneven, even choppy at times. “A good pianist was required for the role of Maxie,” wrote Lardner in the show’s original playbill, and surely no one ever played Maxie better than Macklin does here. As the wry and witty musician Jew on the scene, this actor carries the play along with his quiet confidence and elegant sense of timing. Perhaps it’s his musicality that makes Macklin’s rhythm so reliable. For if the boys of Tin Pan Alley knew anything, they
knew this: It’s all in the timing.
June Moon, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $35. To October 5.