Before he began writing as well as directing his celebrated movies, Preston Sturges uncorked Strictly Dishonorable, a hit Broadway show. It was such a click that although it opened a little more than a month before the October 1929 stock market crash, it ran until January 1931.
It's easy to see the reason for the long-running attention thanks to Laura Braza's revival--the first in Manhattan since the initial run--as an Attic Theater Company production at The Flea. This may not be the absolutely perfect realization of a romantic comedy written as Jazz Age morality rapidly shifted, but acted by an energetic troupe, it more than serves the purpose.
Into a speakeasy run by suave Tomaso Antiovi (Christopher Tocco) burst Henry Greene (Thomas Christopher Matthews), whose intolerance mounts in direct proportion to how much he's drunk, and ex-pat Mississippi fiancée Isabel Parry (Keilly McQuail). At first, they only encounter the hospitable owner and a regular, Judge Dempsey (John Robert Tillotson), who lives upstairs but likes to tipple before retiring.
Before too long, however, Count Augustino di Ruvo (Michael Labbadia), the acclaimed opera tenor who lives upstairs, arrives for his nightcap. Insisting that those gathered call him Gus, he quickly glides into the other part of his nightly routine: putting the moves on the nearest woman.
Since Isabel is the only female present, she gets Gus's undivided attention, which only alienates Henry and leads to tension that requires the presence of Officer Mulligan (William John Austin), who's glad to accept a drink as long as he can act as if it's ginger ale.
That's the first act. In acts two and three Henry is dispatched back to his New Jersey (the brunt of a few too many easy jokes) hometown, and Gus lures Isabel to his lair with, as he boasts, only "strictly dishonorable" intentions.
Sturges makes that arrangement the wellspring of his fun by upending expectations. Whereas Isabel is raring to go (while Judge Dempsey tries to thwart her), Gus realizes not only that he's genuinely attracted to his overnight guest but also that he has a conscience.
Whether honor will prevail is the question. One character even cracks that there's such a thing as "too much honor." But the audience is undoubtedly ahead of Sturges on that. It's not difficult to figure out how it all will end, especially since Henry of the Jersey Oranges is the genuine cad here.
But the amusement lies in what precedes the foreseeable finale. Most of the cast does a bang-up job of achieving that end. As a misplaced Southern belle who repeatedly points out that she's less attractive than five of her six sisters, McQuail nonetheless gives a highly attractive performance. Tillotson and Tocco enhance the innate comedy by not pushing things but letting them unfold naturally. Austin has the right handle on the stereotypical Irish cop, and Ryan Trout and Nick Ritacco do nicely as speakeasy staffers. Only Matthews pulls too many stops out, which may be partially director Braza's problem.
The Strictly Dishonorable find is darkly handsome Labbadia, who's making a New York debut. His Gus has all the mannerisms of the bounder he's been, which makes his transition to head-over-heels lover that much more engaging. One of the most impressive moments is when, after Isabel's repeated urging, he consents to sing. He does so with a poignantly controlled tenor that'll convinced the harshest audience member that this guy could very well have made the crowds at the old 39th Street Metropolitan Opera House weak in the knees.
There are indications in this Strictly Dishonorable that the Attic Theater Company isn't operating on a sky's-the-limit budget. Liz Sherrier's sets are hardly lavish. Also, it's not extremely likely that a guy as macho as Gus would have a small stature of Michelangelo's David on display. Costumer Travis Chinick hasn't found the absolutely right men's clothes, but McQuail does get to wear a bee's knees beaded dress as well as undergarments that couldn't look more period.
Erasmus Fenn (whoever he is, since there's reason to doubt his program bio) pays tribute to Charles Ludlum and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company with Drop Dead Perfect at St. Clement's. This echo of RTC head Charles Ludlum's Mystery of Irma Vep is further enhanced with the presence of Ludlum's co-leading man (make that co-leading woman) Everett Quinton as focal character Idris Seabright.
The action--there's plenty of it--takes place in Idris's Florida Keys cottage, a James J. Fenton concoction with menacing staircase and scary portraits on the walls. There, Idris lords it over permanent guest Vivien (Jason Edward Cook) and rises to worse behavior when interloper Ricardo (Jason Cruz) arrives, claiming to be a long-lost relative.
Ricardo and Vivien, whose right leg is in a brace--"You are a cripple," Idris insists, "You are," paraphrasing Bette Davis's famous Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? line--seem to have instant rapport. This doesn't sit well with Idris, who quickly develops a pash for Ricardo. Mixing in with them is Idris's lawyer, Phineas Fenn (Michael Keyloun, doubling as a mysterious narrator), who also has eyes for Vivien and a proposal for her as well.
The cast, with Joe Brancato directing them smartly, is on top of the material. There's almost no need to mention how Quinton tears into the material, daintily holding the many lovely skirts (supplied by Charlotte Palmer-Lane) as he swishes this way and that with a grimace for every occasion. Cook has a good time with Vivien. (Think Vivian Vance. Erasmus Fenn is doing just that with his many referential I Love Lucy quips.) Among other things, Cook takes a wonderful pratfall on Fenton's treacherous staircase. No slouches either are Cruz or Keyloun.
The fly in this giddy ointment is the book, which introduces too many elements that aren't dealt with satisfactorily by final fade-out. Along the way, though, there's lots of amusement.