WILLIAMSTOWN -- Watching Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman's 1929 comedy "June Moon" in the song-laden, atmospheric, workmanlike production it is being given on the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage, there is an underlying sense of two plays at work.
Set against the hustle, bustle and commercial pressures of Tin Pan Alley, "June Moon" has all the marks of both a cynic's (Lardner) incisive eye and sharp tongue and a romantic's (Kaufman) hopeful belief that goodness can prevail even in a setting fueled by self-promotion and survival ay all cost.
At the center of "June Moon" is a love story involving two impossibly naive, ingenuous people who clearly are designed for no one but each other. One of them, Enid Baker (an engaging Rachel Napoleon), is a dentist's receptionist with high moral principles who wants what any young single woman her age wants -- a husband, a home and children.
In the play's seemingly long, demanding prologue, she meets in the parlor car of a New York-bound train the very man she's looking for, Fred Stevens (a frequently difficult to like Nate Cordrry), a decent young man with a facility for writing song lyrics who has given up his job at "the G.E." in Schenectady, N.Y., and is heading to New York in the hope of hooking up professionally with a composer, Paul Sears (Rick Holmes in a nicely shaded performance), who has had one hit, "Paprika," years earlier and is now in desperate need of another. He's impressed with the lyrics Fred has sent him and there is everything in their first meeting together in Paul's apartment to suggest that Fred indeed has potential.
But for Paul's live-in, self-centered, materialistic sister-in-law, Eileen (Holley Fain), Fred represents opportunity of another sort -- a way to make her meandering lover pay attention. Betrayal is in the air. On a night Fred has planned to spend with Enid after his meeting with Paul, Eileen sweeps him into an evening of clubbing with Paul and Paul's bored, frustrated, bitter wife Lucille (Kate MacCluggage). The excuse Fred gives Enid on the phone for not keeping their date comes uncomfortably at first but it comes. From that moment, Fred is caught in a vortex of high-living and romantic duplicity as he is wined, dined, seduced and led by the nose by Eileen, all at his expense and all as his professional future hinges on a song, "June Moon," he has written with Paul, set to lyrics he originally improvised for Enid in the parlor car.
There is a kind of mad, celebratory Champagne headiness and inspired lunacy in the atmosphere at Goebel's, the music publishing house that employs Paul and Fred and is the setting for the play's second and third acts.
Beneath all that tunefulness, all that music, you can sense the wear and tear, the strain. You can see it in the eyes and faces; feel it in the unrelenting eagerness to please (Christopher Fitzgerald's delightful Benny Fox, a house composer); hear it in the dripping cynicism of men (David Turner's sublimely piercing verbal turns as Maxie, Paul's pianist) and women -- Lucille, in particular, but also Eileen, a woman of no visible independent means whose survival strategy is to callously attach herself to some man of some means -- whose lives have fallen short of expectations.
Even Enid is not immune from having been betrayed and deceived -- in the workplace by her boss, in her heart by Fred.
Tough stuff for a comedy and while there are plenty of laughs, they don't come easily, especially in the early going. Comedy here is not built so much on situation or physicality. This is comedy of language, wit, absurdities; contrasts between, on the one hand, those who survive, indeed succeed, by virtue of a blessed innocence that protects them from the world as it is and, on the other hand, those who know better.
JUNE MOON by Ring Lardner and Gerge S. Kaufman. Directed by Jessica Stone; scenic design, Tobin Ost; costume design, Gregg Barnes; lighting design, Jeff Croiter; sound design, Drew Levy; dialect coach, Louis Colaianni; music director, Kris Kukul; hair and wig design, Charles G. LaPointe. Through Sunday. Eves.: 7:30 Thu.; 8 Fri., Sat. Mats.: 2 Thu., Sun.; 3 Sat. Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown. Tickets: $60. (413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org. 2 hours 24 minutes
Fred Stevens Nate Cordrry
Paul Sears Rick Holmes
Eileen Fletcher Holley Fain
Maxie David Turner
Goldie Diana Diamond
Window Cleaner Jason Bowen
Mr. Hart Timothy Shaw
A Man Named Brainard
Whitney Maris Brown