Although Preston Sturges is best known today as the writer–director of the series of classic film comedies he made between 1940-44 (The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), what is not generally known is that he was also the author of six plays produced on Broadway prior to his success in Hollywood. One of those plays, the 1929 comedy Strictly Dishonorable, was a smash hit running 557 performances with Italian film star and matinee idol Tullio Carminati and was filmed twice, once in 1931 with Paul Lukas and again in 1951 with opera star Ezio Pinza. The Attic Theater Company whose mission is to explore new plays and relevant classics from the American experience has revived this Prohibition-era comedy for the first time in New York since Target Margin Theater’s eccentric 1997 staging. The results are a charming, amusing and satisfying evening of old-fashioned romantic comedy which will have you rooting for the unlikely couple to end up together.
Set in an earlier era when liquor was illegal and if a girl spent the night in a man’s apartment she was compromised for life, Strictly Dishonorable takes place in an Italian speakeasy on West 49th Street in midtown Manhattan. Bond salesman and New Jersey resident Henry Greene and his fiancée Isabelle Perry, newly arrived in NYC from Yoakum, Mississippi, accidentally end up in Tomaso’s place after an evening out looking for a nightcap. He is very stuffy and provincial but she is game for an adventure when in walks regular Count Augustino di Ruvo, a.k.a. Tino Caraffa, the famed Metropolitan Opera tenor whom she imagines that she recognizes from somewhere. While Henry gets fighting drunk, Gus and Isabelle are immediately drawn to each other and he works his charms on her.
However, Tomaso and the Judge, another older regular, know Gus’ reputation with a long string of women (Lilli, Mimi, Kate, Susi, Tessy, etc.) and that he is a perennial bachelor who will probably never marry and settle down. When Henry demands that Isabelle leave and return with him to West Orange, New Jersey (which we already know that she hates as much as his cold, supercilious family), she refuses and he leaves her there to fend for herself. But she has no money, and Gus, ever the gentleman and not wanting to lose her, offers her the use of his apartment above the speakeasy for as long as she needs. When Isabelle asks what are his intentions towards her, he replies, “Strictly dishonorable, Isabelle.” In the farcical scenes which follow, all of the men attempt to save Isabelle’s reputation to her regret – though she seems to be quite in control of the situation having five married sisters back home. The play ends on a high note on the following morning.
Although a good deal of the cast are probably too young for their roles, Laura Braza has directed in a breezy, leisurely style which not only gets all of the laughs for the many satirical jokes and non sequiturs but she also has us rooting that Isabelle and Gus will end up together and put the pompous and smug Henry in his place. Though most likely a good ten years younger than the other actors who have previously played Gus, Michael Labbadia is both persuasive and appealing as the hot-blooded Italian with the silver tongue. Keilly McQuail makes a lovely, innocent Isabelle who is probably more experienced than she lets on. As her would-be protectors, Christopher Tocco as the speakeasy owner and longtime family friend to Gus and John Robert Tillotson as the inebriated, older bachelor judge are quite delightful. Thomas Christopher Matthews has the conventional, stodgy Henry down pat but also demonstrates his softer, remorseful side when he turns up the following morning. As the very Irish cop on the beat, William John Austin is quite amusing as Officer Mulligan who knows how to avoid seeing what he is not supposed to discover.
Travis Chinick’s costumes are period perfect for the tail end of the Jazz Age while Liz Scherrier’s two sets suitably set the mood for both the main room of the speakeasy and the bachelor apartment above. Beth Lake’s sound design includes snatches of tenor arias as well as pertinent outside noises. While Strictly Dishonorable is quite different from the fast-paced, flippant screwball comedies that won Preston Sturges numerous Academy Award nominations, it is an enjoyable and rewarding look at a previous, more innocent era. The jokes at the expense of New Jersey, Italian opera singers and the Irish policemen may well be considered classics of the genre.
Strictly Dishonorable (through August 10, 2014)
Attic Theater Company
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, between Broadway and Church Street, in Manhattan
For tickets and information, visit http://www.theattictheaterco.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission