Was there a more influential force in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system than Samuel Goldwyn? Goldwyn, who produced dozens of films, including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Pride of the Yankees, and The Little Foxes apparently didn't say enough in his decades in show business, so now he's saying plenty more in Mr. Goldwyn, which just opened at the Promenade Theatre.
Goldwyn is played by Alan King, as a genius on the edge, who needs to be careful not to shout and who needs to watch his blood pressure. If Goldwyn is under some stress, it's perhaps understandable; it's 1952, and he has a long string of flops behind him. To make matters worse, the future of his current pet project - Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye - is anything but certain.
Still, if the setup for the show is far from original, it doesn't stop King. He portrays Goldwyn with an innocent, almost childlike glee and a tremendous amount of relish. He wraps his tongue and personality humorously around the cinema mogul's trademarked Goldwynisms (such as mentioning that a verbal contract is not worth the paper it's printed on, and so forth), and definitely seems to be having a great time with Goldwyn's accent and larger-than-life personality.
This is necessary, though, given the life Goldwyn lived. And we hear just about the whole of the story, too. He talks about his early days with the last name of Goldfish (the literal English translation of his true name) and his humble beginnings as a glove maker, his partnerships with the Selwyn brothers, his philosophies of movie production, and even his thoughts and stories about George Bernard Shaw, Cecil B. DeMille, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, and more.
For all the talking Goldwyn does during the course of the show, though, remarkably little gets said. But, perhaps that's to be expected; the script from Marsha Lebby and John Lollos, both film afficianados and historians, plays more as a valentine to Hollywood and this unusual, dynamic figure than a true character study. Rather, Lebby and Lollos are quite careful to present Goldwyn as a very likable, funny man, doing almost nothing to search out the depth or significance that made him who he was.
Most of what is done to make Goldwyn more human is done through Goldwyn's interaction with his devoted secretary, Helen, played with warmth and wit by Lauren Klein. She is so down to Earth, and knows Goldwyn so well (and after working for him for 17 years or so, why not?), watching her is a tremendous pleasure, and it makes watching him that more entertaining.
Director Gene Saks's contributions to the show are primarily visual - the first seconds of the play consist of the blinds in Goldwyn's darkened office being opened one at a time, with Michael Lincoln's light of the Hollywood sky spilling over David Gallo's breathtaking set. For all the simple beauty and profound nature of this moment, it's hard not to wish that Saks would have worked harder to keep the rest of the show from feeling like a stand-up comedy act.
But, if that's what you're looking for, Mr. Goldwyn is the perfect show. It's entertaining and very funny as far as it goes. For meaningful, worthwhile theatre, though, it just doesn't go quite far enough.