Building Madness-A 1930’s Screwball Comedy at Harlequin

Building Madness, a Double-Entendre if there ever was one.

The title of Kate Danley’s play, which just opened at Harlequin Productions, Building Madness, can be read two ways. Building can be a noun, meaning a “building” that is to say a structural edifice of bricks and mortar or other materials) or it can mean to develop, foster, encourage, or create. Both are applicable to this excellent script, a revival of 1930’s screwball comedy.

Screwball comedies were extremely popular during the Great Depression because they were escapist, dealt with class and sexual tensions in ways that would not upset the censors, but would please the downtrodden. They also filled the seats with people trying to forget their precarious economic circumstances.

Danley’s script conformed to the characteristics of screwball comedies in that it also had a very witty script, high speed repartee, a fairly farcical situation, elements of a bedroom farce and an underrated female from the “lower classes” who outwits everybody.

As the play opens, a few months after the 1929 stock market crash, in a rather upscale architectural office in what appears to be Manhattan, the owner, and two employees debate about how to stay afloat, with no work coming in, enormous debt, and not even enough money to pay for coffee.

The secretary, appropriately named Trixie, played by Emma Brown Baker, with a strong more of less Brooklyn accent, indicating her lower class, uneducated status, seems like a total ditz. Most of the humor relies on her understanding various idioms like “money laundering,” in a literal sense.

Conforming to the genre is an ineffective male, Max Marshall, played by Nathan Rice, who through no fault of his own, occupies a higher place on the social ladder. Like many of the bumblers in screwball comedies, he had inherited the firm from his highly competent father, who to be fair was building buildings during boom times and not during a financial crunch.

His employee or partner is the actual architect, Paul Fielding, played by Matt Shimkus. The two have a very competitive relationship which spills over into a few different intermingled highly complicated love triangles during the course of a complicated plot.

What drives the plot is that Max, naively does not realize that he is getting a loan from a famous Mafia family, after having seduced the daughter of the Police Commissioner, in order to get the contract to design and build a Police retirement home.

In the end all is well that ends well, but there is a huge amount of verbal tap-dancing, sexual partnering and unpartnering, but in the end, the females save the day.

As a production, the technical aspects were outstanding beginning with the exquisite historically accurate Art Deco set by Jeannie Beirne. Most of the action took place in the office of the architectural firm; its stunning and flawless design indicated that the firm had once been highly successful. Also it allowed facilitated the “bedroom farce” elements of the play, because there were several doors where people could hide.

The Sound Design by Karl Welty was to die for. Before the show and throughout the show, the audience was delighted with 1920’s and 1930’s music such as “Putting on the Ritz” and other delights.

The weakness in the play was the manner in which the director, Scott Nolte, directed the whole cast to play everything for laughs, which kills comedy. The actors all seemed talented, but the comic timing was off, and most of the wit in the script fell flat (on opening night) because the actors played caricatures.

Personally I never felt invested in the plight of the characters because they never played the seriousness of their situation. Yes, it was funny in an ironic way that an architect in a large city did not know that the Mafia was in the loan or concrete business but there was a serious edge to the situation; they might have ended up with their feet stuck in the concrete at the bottom of the East River. The essence of comedy is tragedy, and if you don’t play the seriousness of the situation the audience does not become engaged, nor is humor expressed.

Some of the audience laughed but not as much as this script deserved, and the people next to me, left after intermission. With all that talent devoted to the technical aspects and some talented actors, I just found the direction lacking.

Building Madness. Harlequin Productions. 202-4th Ave E, Olympia, WA 98501 (Downtonwn Olympia) Thru April 1. Evening at 7:30, Matinées Sun. Mar. 19 and Wed. March 29. PWYC Sun. Mar 19 matinée, Fri Mar. 24. Thur. Mar 3


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