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THEATER REVIEW: "June Moon" offers rare glimpse of theater history

Fred Stevens (Jack Mikesell), clerk at General Electric in Schenectady, hops a train to New York in search of fame and fortune as a writer of song lyrics, meets cute on the train and gets briefly derailed by a brazen New York woman in Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman’s 1929 comedy “June Moon.”

This sendup of Tin Pan Alley (adapted from Lardner’s short story “Some Like Them Cold”) has been judiciously shortened and updated a bit for its run through March 3 at the Mandell Weiss Forum, under the auspices of UCSD’s Theatre and Dance Department.

Lardner’s only successful attempt as a playwright gets a stylish look, thanks in large part to Orli Nativ’s terrific costumes. There is one anachronism: cleavage is in view, but those were the days of breast binding to get that “flat flapper” look.

Director Jonathan Silverstein (a UCSD MFA alum) keeps the pace snappy and employs modern set change techniques.

The plot is slight; the questions at hand: Will Fred make it big? Will he marry “train date” homegirl Edna Baker (Vi Flaten) or Big Apple siren Eileen Fletcher (Jenni Putney)?

Lardner has populated the play with amusing and quirky characters. Daniel Rubiano is utterly convincing as not-very-successful songwriter Paul Sears; Ngozi Anyanwu eminently watchable as his wisecracking though long-suffering wife Lucille.

Natalie Birriel is hilariously over the top as office slave Goldie; Matthew MacNelly properly sardonic as put-upon piano player Maxie Schwartz, who turns down a suggestion to hit a bar at day’s end with this: “After I listen to songs all day I don’t want liquor. I just go home and take a general anesthetic.”

Maurice Williams is amusing as Benny Fox, another aspiring songwriter; Ronald Washington fine as boss Mr. Hart, Brianna Hill suitably sexy as Hart’s mistress Miss Rixey.

But everybody’s a wannabe songwriter here, best illustrated by Danvir Singh, making the most of his turn as the window washer with a tune or two in his soul.

Best known for short stories and sportswriting, Lardner had a remarkable ear for a certain kind of American speech. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called him “the deadpan master of the vernacular short story.”

In this case, the speech pattern may make English teachers and those drilled by them in the rules of proper English cringe: it’s is full of ungrammatical language.

But never mind. “June Moon” is worth seeing for its fine performances, excellent directing and a seldom-offered chance to see a piece of theatrical history.

The details

“June Moon” plays through March 3 at UCSD’s Mandell Weiss Forum in La Jolla.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm.

For tickets, call (858) 534-4574 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.