That's not the only way the play is very much like Chicago, both Watkins's original and its now-much-more-famous musical adaptation: It also performs a satirical skewering of show business, and paints a lovably hateful portrait of women behaving badly for reasons of nature and necessity. But if Chicago delves somewhat deeper, indicting those who gobble up scandal and make celebrities of society’s scummiest, So Help Me God! is content examining someone who’s already a slimy star - and, for her benefit as much as her public's, has to stay one.
That would be Lily Darnley (Kristen Johnston), a bobbed-blonde boulevard bombshell who’s made her name on frivolous vamps, but who longs for a great new serious role. She thought she’d found just that courtesy of George Herrick (Ned Noyes). He's written a tour de force called Empty Hands about a professor’s wife whose quest for love destroys everyone she touches, and the play has been bought and cast, and begun rehearsals, with exactly Lily's goal in mind.
Except there are just a few problems. Lily’s adoring fans - the limousine trade - would never accept her in such a lowly station, so the character must be changed to an English aristocrat (with a butler, naturally). She looks simply smashing in a swimsuit and the world’s finest mink wrap, so some way must be found for her to wear both over the course of the evening. And wouldn’t a death scene be perfectly lovely, even if the point of the show is that her character survives long past having anything to live for?
Through rehearsals, the Philadelphia tryout, and opening night on Broadway, Lily will stop at nothing to get her way regardless of the financial or human cost. The budget bloats by a full third (to a gaspworthy $40,000), the play goes through two directors, and more leading men than I was able to count. (At least two, but then there’s that one role that’s diminished from lead to supporting...) It also gains an ingénue and understudy, Kerren (Anna Chlumsky), who’s making her professional debut with the show to most people’s chagrin - but Lily’s delight.
“She has no experience, but what does that matter?” Lily explains, justifying her choice. “She has no training, but what does that matter? She has no talent, but what does that matter?” It matters, in fact, a great deal, because the ultra-green Kerren doesn't realize she’s being cast for exactly those reasons, rather than because she’s a brilliant actress. She even makes the titular statement when she begs the Lord for the chance to prove her stuff - Lily coming down with a tiny case of measles or mumps will do the job nicely.
Fat chance. Watkins knew that the hardest of stars never vanish once they appear, so Kerren’s hopes are doomed from the outset. There's never any question of this. But her struggle as her part is shredded when she receives terrific notices out of town, or as she attempts to romance the various men in the company who are all under Lily’s control, is an extremely entertaining implosion. And because Watkins created in Lily a titanic figure that might be one of the greatest unknown comic roles of the American stage, when Kerren's progress stalls, the play itself doesn't. Watching the surrounding disintegration, presided over by a demon so complete yet so understandable that you love to loathe her, is a different kind of joy.
Johnston has much to do with this, of course, and she’s found here one of her best stage roles yet in New York. Johnston’s raspy-voiced brashness isn’t right for every part, but it's an ideal match for Lily's tossed-off callousness, and lets her steamroll through Lily with utterly convincing conviction. She’s the embodiment of menace without malice, and never lets Lily be merely a garden-variety monster. That her already substantial height is augmented (by costume designer Clint Ramos) with super-high heels only helps her tower farther over most everyone else.
Chlumsky provides a juicy contrast, short and inward-contracting where Lily is aggressively expansive. Yet she’s just as much of a delight, tempering Kerren’s innocence with a throbbing drive that never lets the sweet become saccharine or the sour to curdle entirely. Chlumsky's transformation of Kerren from bulging-eyed fan to cynical artistic negotiator is a remarkable one that adds a lot of personal weight to this very theatrical show.
The production could use more of it, actually - aside from the lead women, the performances are little more than era-appropriate archetypes. Noyes comes the closest to working, but he’s very much enacting a “nerd made good.” Brad Bellamy makes the show’s first director an empty neurotic, Kraig Swartz the second an uncomfortably swishy “artistic” type. Kevin O’Donnell and Matthew Waterson are smoothly interchangeable as Lily’s prospective paramours both onstage and off. Allen Lewis Rickman, Peter Van Wagner, and Jeremy Lawrence constantly struggle to avoid caricature as (respectively) the producer, the press agent, and the stage manager.
In fairness, director Jonathan Bank may not have had many other options. Because the play isn't as subtle or as biting in its satire of theatre creatures as Chicago was criminals, focusing on the comedy probably helps buoy the show against unruly tides. Other problems remain, however. Bank has admitted to editing the play for modern delicacy, but he allows only one intermission (the play obviously calls for two), which makes the second, final, and most important change of Bill Clarke's modest backstage-and-hotel set take an uncomfortably long time. And the third act makes so little sense, one can only wonder whether Bank, like Lily, excised too much.
But in either case, is it that important? Lily would argue that the final product pleasing is all that counts, and she’d probably be right. Bank's final product is an intensely interesting excavation, a sparkling and original comedy from one of Broadway’s most underrepresented voices, and worth hearing for that reason. It’s also fascinating as a precursor to All About Eve, which it resembles more than slightly. Even so, So Help Me God! has enough unique fire and music to stand as worthy enough on its own.
So Help Me God!