As erudite OLY ARTS readers undoubtedly know, screwball comedy was a film subgenre of the 1930s and ’40s that subverted traditional romance stories by allowing female characters to drive the narrative through flirty wordplay, comic misunderstandings and farcical situations. “Building Madness,” writer Kate Danley’s newish (2016) tribute to screwball comedy, is currently enjoying its professional debut at Harlequin Productions. Danley is the bestselling author of fantasy novels “The Woodcutter” and “Queen Mab” among others, but she’s also an established actor, puppeteer, comedian, and yes, playwright. “Building Madness” was her first full-length play, but it’s the work of a studious artisan.
Easygoing Paul (Matt Shimkus) and anxious Max (Nathan Rice) are two-thirds of TF Architecture, a big-city firm floundering through the Great Depression. The third table leg of the company, probably the person keeping it afloat, is Trixie, their ostensible secretary. The script describes her as “crazy like a fox,” a screwball cliché, and Emma Brown Baker does an outstanding job of sneaking street smarts into another screwball trope, the ostensibly dizzy, daffy dame.
TF has managed to land a huge contract, a retirement home for police officers, which might keep them afloat. Unfortunately, they snatch catastrophe from the jaws of victory by hiring “connected” criminals to construct the edifice. Enter the DeLeoni mob family in the persons of capa Ruby (Angela DiMarco), a woman who knows what she wants and where and from whom and how many times she will get it, and her nephew, Vito (James William Clark, impeccable as an urban-accented slicko). Paul, Max and Trixie partner with socialite Gwen Gladwell (Helen Harvester) to oust the mob and rescue their insolvent business.
Slight demerit to Danley for the tongue-twisting name “Gwen Gladwell,” which Shimkus and Rice visibly brace themselves to utter correctly. And though the script’s hundreds of jokes are delivered in the sprightly cadence of “His Girl Friday” or “It Happened One Night,” most are more clever than sidesplitting. Danley has clearly studied the classics of the form, however, so her play is a comedy with clockwork construction that, at 90 minutes plus intermission, keeps the audience smiling throughout and does not outstay its welcome. As usual for stage comedies, “Building Madness” is noticeably funnier in its second act, when anticipated farcical collisions and slamming doors arrive in a one-table restaurant.
Harlequin patrons expect gorgeous sets, attention to detail and workmanlike direction, all unmissable here. Credit the always-reliable set designer Jeannie Beirne and director Scott Nolte, retired cofounder of Seattle’s Taproot Theatre Company. The costumes, designed by Melanie Ransom and managed by Carolyn Fry, are attractive and on point for the period, without too many unnecessary changes impeding the action. One orchestrated set change earned applause from Harlequin’s opening-night audience.
Digging deep, we discover screwball comedy is about women who succeed by cleaning up after incompetent men without depriving them of their false impression of being in charge. In that way, the form is both of its sexist time and a presciently sardonic comment on sexism. Maybe 2023 is the perfect time for such a play. Heck, maybe every year is. This production focuses on getting the details and performances as its soundtrack encourages us to “Come On, Get Happy” because “Happy Days Are Here Again.” It’s a fizzy mix lovingly calibrated for an elegant, downtown date night.
Photo credits: Shanna Paxton Photography for Harlequin Productions
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, March 17 – April 1;
2 p.m. Sundays, March 19 and 26;
2 p.m. Wednesday, March 29
Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia