Yes, it’s “Seven Keys to Baldpate,” a real charming sweetheart of a swell old show now getting a sprightly and spirited production at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre. In addition to being just good plain fun, the show plays out like your favorite old-fashioned, black and white screwball comedy — but one that you never seen before.
“Seven Keys to Baldpate” was in fact penned by Rhode Island’s own theatrical whirlwind and wunderkind; the inestimable legendary showman George M. Cohan. Cohan’s contributions to show biz seem the larger than life stuff of myth. Heirs apparent to the mantle of our own home grown ‘King of Broadway’ include Adrian Hall, founder of Trinity Repertory Company and, of course, 2nd Story’s own impresario Ed Shea, who has a created a cultural institution here in our midst and seemingly out of the blue.
Such theatrical miracles, do not, of course, occur overnight and in fact this production of “Baldpate” marks an auspicious occasion. This year, 2014, marks both the one hundred anniversary of both the play “Seven Keys” and the centenary of the building that now houses 2nd Story Theatre. 2014 also marks 100 years since the start of World War I, in which, if the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” has anything to teach us about history, Cohan and his family went “over there” as part of the USO, one of the first American entertainers taking part in the great tradition of entertaining our troops.
Great changes may occur, yet everything old is new again. One of the great things about “Baldpate” is, despite its old-fashioned pedigree, not merely how fast paced and immediate this comedy is but how up to date and relevant this side-splitter is to modern audiences.
In the play our intrepid and eminently nonchalant celebrity writer, William Hallowell Magee agrees to write a book in one night, a night spent in the winter-deserted Baldpate Manor. He’s interrupted in these endeavors by an assortment of surprise guests, eccentric hermits, a femme fatale or two, crooked politicians, crooked industrialists and just plain crooks — all after a treasure rumored to be stashed there. The typically wacky stuff of farce, sure, but sit back and watch to see how hard the dialogue soon hits home.
There’s a line in which a character remarks that “losing $200,000 is hardly an everyday event — unless you’re on Wall Street,” but that’s a tame gag compared to the bit when the crooked mayor rages at the equally crooked railroad tycoon. Demurring that his part in a crooked graft kickback scheme was due to the fat cat’s “rotten money tempting men to lie and steal,” he then proclaims “big corporations such as yours are the cause of corrupt politics in this country, and you’re just the kind of sneak that helps build prisons that are filled with the poor devils that do your dirty work. You’re worse than a crook-you’re a maker of crooks!” Written in 1914, Cohan’s words here sound as if his famous statue in New York should be occupying Wall Street as well as Times Square.
Though it’s fun to see how the high rollers in the rigged game ain’t changed that much in a century, “Seven Keys” is really pretty light on the political punditry. Comedy is King here and the show is filled with delightful and ingenious twists, turns and surprises. But fear not, you’ll get no spoilers here from me.
The cast has a collectively canny knack for comedic timing; the dialogue snaps like slamming doors. Ara Boghigian deftly portrays our debonair and devil-may-care novelist, his eyes alight with delight. He’s got a sort of William Powell as “The Thin Man” vibe going for him here, he’s not only a wise guy but a wry, dry master of the silly ceremonies thrust upon him. The gang of would-be goons that keep impeding his writing progress are all a swell assortment of the usual suspects which is to say that these second story men and women who break in here all deliver standout performances. To call out a couple here, Jim Sullivan and Tom Roberts, as the aforementioned bent politico and corrupt industrialist — each are adept at oozing with the appropriate amounts of genteel sleaze. Tanya Anderson is crackerjack as a wisecracking and vamping dame.
Like many a theatrical impresario one of George M. Cohan’s many talents was for appropriation, he knew what worked onstage and how to work it; that’s a gift that 2nd Story Artistic Director shares in spades. It does not diminish from Cohan’s considerable legacy to note that “Baldpate” itself is an adaptation, old George M. basing his stage version on a novel of the same name by Earl Derr Biggers, the man who created Charlie Chan. The point is that it’s Cohan’s version that had legs; there were various adaptations by others, none were as successful. It was Cohan who made this material soar.
“Seven Keys to Baldpate” now through February 23 at 2nd Story Theatre in Warren. See listings for details.