'June Moon' opens with comedy and wit


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Stage director Jessica Stone likes her comedy sharp, with the bite of truth.

"I love comedies that are not merely fluff but truth," she says. "Truth is almost always funny mixed with a little pain."

Stone has the perfect vehicle in "June Moon," a 1929 comedy by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman about an earnest naive young man with a talent for writing song lyrics who gives up his day job in the shipping department at "the G.E." in Schenectady, N.Y., to cast his lot with a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith and find fame and fortune in New York. Along the way he runs into more than a few distractions and temptations.

"June Moon" officially opens Williamstown Theatre Festival's 2014 season -- its 60th -- at 8 tonight, Thursday, July 3, on the Main Stage at Williams College's ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, where it is scheduled to run through July 13.

The play is based on a Ring Lardner short story, "Some Like ‘Em Cold," about a gullible young songwriter who meets a sweet girl in a train station on his way to New York. But the outcome in Lardner's story, Stone says, is not as romantic and rosy as it is in the play.

Kaufman felt the story could be a great play, but he also felt the guy should wind up with the girl.

"Lardner had a knack for satire," Stone said during a pre-rehearsal interview in an upper lobby sitting area at the ‘62 Center, just outside the "June Moon" rehearsal studio. "He had certain disgust for the shallowness of middlebrow taste. He wrote about people who are more interested in posturing and not listening to each other.

"The play is a little more Lardner than Kaufman. But you can see in this play where Kaufman stepped in, particularly to finish a phrase. The play has this balance of sweet and sour. I like its sarcasm and grit."

Stone is no stranger to Williamstown. She and her husband, actor Christopher Fitzgerald (he has a small supporting role in "June Moon"), have performed there. She made her directorial bow on the WTF Main Stage in 2010 with a dazzlingly inventive all-male "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and then returned in 2012 with a revelatory production of Neil Simon's "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" in the smaller Nikos Stage.

After a series of out-of-town tryouts, "June Moon" opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in October 1929. The show ran for 273 performances and then went on the road. There also was a movie made in 1931, with Jack Oakie and Frances Dee.

"Everything was changing then," Stone said. "Tin Pan Alley had moved uptown. There was radio, talkies; people were partying hard without regard for consequences.

"This is not screwball comedy. You can feel the hum of consequences underneath the dialogue."

Stone believes comedy is undervalued.

"The stakes have to be high for the characters," Stone said. "Comedy requires the emotional depths of (Clifford) Odets. You have to be physically and mentally on the mark and then you have to land with the precision of a (policeman) directing traffic in a traffic jam."

"June Moon" is at Williamstown as the result of a conversation last fall between Stone and now artistic director emeritus Jenny Gersten.

"I just thought it would be a great summer show," said Stone who, this fall, will direct Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Huntington Theatre in Boston and Alan Ayckbourn's "Absurd Person Singular" at Two Rivers Theatre in Red Bank, N.J. "lt's just such a treat to be up here with a great cast and a great comedy."

On stage

What: ‘June Moon' by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Jessica Stone

Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival

When: Now through July 13. Eves.: 7:30 Tue.-Thu.; 8 Fri., Sat. and Thursday, July 3. Mats.: 2 Thu., Sun.; 3:30 Sat.

Where: Main Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown

Admission: $60

Information: (413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org; in person at ‘62 Center box office


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