Northlight Theatre

“You don’t have to work at all in the theater,” says a character in George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man.

The actors in Northlight Theatre’s production of the 1925 comedy, being revived in honor of the centenary of Kaufman’s birth, work their butts off to breathe life into this historically significant but dramatically dated play. They’d probably have much more success if they didn’t work quite so hard.

Kaufman, the American theater’s greatest comic playwright and director, is famous for saying, “Satire is what closes Saturday night.” But The Butter and Egg Man, his sardonically screwball satire of the New York theater industry in which he flourished, was one of his most successful efforts: a long-running Broadway hit, a popular touring production, an international triumph (it was the first American play published in book form in France), and the inspiration for five movie versions (including one starring Ronald Reagan). Viewed today, it’s clear that The Butter and Egg Man’s influence was long-lasting: its story of an innocent lamb making his way among the wolves of show business is now part of American mythology. The Butter and Egg Man is all the more interesting because Kaufman was writing from direct experience–he modeled the character of fly-by-night producer Joe Lehman on one Rufus LeMaire, a somewhat shady fellow who contracted with Kaufman and Marc Connelly to write the musical comedy Helen of Troy, New York.

But of course the play’s venerability also works against it. The undernourished plot seems all the thinner for having been borrowed from so many times over the years; the interaction between the big, blustery Lehman and his unwitting victim, gentle little Peter Jones, is so obviously the model for the relationship between Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’s The Producers that a contemporary audience is likely to yearn for more manic energy than Kaufman created. The fact that The Butter and Egg Man was a smash in 1925 doesn’t necessarily mean it bears reviving; Abie’s Irish Rose was a hit too, and people don’t go around reviving it. And if they do, they had better do a damn good job.

The folks behind Northlight’s Butter and Egg Man haven’t done a good job at all. The limp timing, fluffed lines, and soggy onstage traffic flow that plagued the clearly underrehearsed opening-night performance may improve with time, but that doesn’t solve the deeper problems that afflict this show: director Doug Finlayson’s basic misconception of the kind of style the play needs, and the overwrought performances of almost everyone in the cast.

Robert Breuler and Suzanne Petri, in the key roles of producer Lehman and his brassy ex-vaudevillian wife, are awful. What’s worse, they’re disappointing–at least to this viewer, who so enjoyed Breuler’s slyly disarming Russian diplomat in Steppenwolf Theatre’s A Walk in the Woods last season and Petri’s delicious Desiree in the concert version of A Little Night Music at the Civic a couple of months ago. As Lehman, Breuler is sluggish, coarse, and lumpy, huffing and puffing his way arthritically about the stage like some 1930s crime-movie heavy. Lehman should make an audience fall in love with him through his very outrageousness; here, the audience is glad when he’s gone. As Fanny Lehman, the archetypal wisecracking Kaufman dame, Petri minces, moues, and mugs her way around the stage, registering annoyingly exaggerated reactions to everyone else’s lines and distorting her sexily husky voice into a grotesque rasp. Together, Petri and Breuler turn the comically bickering Lehmans into a three-dimensional version of Maggie and Jiggs, probably the most charmless characters in the history of newspaper comics.

Eddie Jemison plays Jones, the butter and egg man Lehman cons into investing $20,000 in his disastrous Broadway-bound show. (“Butter and egg man” was a 1920s New York slang phrase, reputedly popularized by speakeasy queen Texas Guinan, meaning a big-spending sucker from out of town.) Jemison fares better than Breuler–that is, he’s not out-and-out obnoxious on the stage–but his Chaplinesque clowning and coy mannerisms, while amusing to watch, are unconvincing. Sybil Walker, as Jones’s sweet but savvy girlfriend Jane (a role that helped launch Tyne Daly’s career in the play’s 1966 New York revival), is far too bland to have believably provoked the gallant infatuation that propels Jones’s key actions.

In smaller roles, Joan Schwenk plays the part of an aging ingenue like Lucille Ball imitating Gloria Swanson; Lisa Tejero goes on an instant high-fiber diet, chewing up the scenery as a haughty chorine; and Colleen Kane, one of the most innately funny actresses in town, is totally wasted as the telephone operator who delivers Kaufman’s shrewd comment on show business’s bottom line: “You see, the people here are funny, sort of. If they like a show, they’ll go to see it, but if they don’t like it–they won’t.”

Only Byron Stewart, as a gullible hotel clerk whom Jones cons just as Lehman conned him, strikes the right balance between comic stylization and believable, honest characterization. His brief scenes, which register the mixture of exhilaration and anxiety that Kaufman identified as unique to show biz, are the best things in the production; they prove that even as predictable and timeworn as it is, The Butter and Egg Man can still work. More’s the pity, then, that most of it doesn’t.