Madcap Fare

Strictly Dishonorable
by Preston Sturges
Directed by Laura Braza
The Attic Theater Company at The Flea Theater
41 White Street, Tribeca
July 22 - August 10, 2014

If one says the words "Preston Sturges' 1929 comedy," one already has a good sense of how Strictly Dishonorable will work out: Southern transplant Isabelle’s decision to have a few drinks at a New York City speakeasy with her New Jersey fiancé spirals into a series of life-altering realizations and choices, and true love prevails. The characters are written as types -- the gesticulating Italian waiter, the drunk but paternal judge, the genially corrupt Irish cop, the smooth-talking Lothario with an apartment designed for seduction, the provincial bourgeois (would-be) husband -- but you know what you’re getting, and the actors here do an excellent job making the characters more than types, creating of them well-rounded people about whom the audience genuinely cares. This performance is well-executed, fast-moving, and funny, and several affecting and nuanced performances bring out shades of meaning latent in the lines. For Strictly Dishonorable (or perhaps any screwball romantic comedy from the period) to work, the audience has to believe that Isabelle and Gus have fallen in something like love after a night of Old Fashioneds and champagne, and Keilly McQuail and Michael Labbadia create a chemistry that accomplishes this. 

The play begins late one night in a Hell’s Kitchen speakeasy, where Isabelle and Henry (Thomas Christopher Matthews) stop in for a drink; Isabelle charms the owner, Tomaso (Christopher Tocco), and Judge Dempsey (John Robert Tillotson), his most loyal customer, while Henry manages to be wildly offensive to everyone, in a move that riffs on the play's stereotypes: once he launches into a racist verbal assault on one of the Italian characters, the audience is delighted that no one seems to like him, not even his fiancee. After his departure, Isabelle succumbs to the charms of Gus, who is both an Italian nobleman and a famous opera singer, and the first act ends with Gus inviting Isabelle up to his apartment and admitting that his intentions are "strictly dishonorable." Despite the evidence that Gus is an unrepentant wooer of women and the Judge’s fears for Isabelle’s heart and hymen, however, he is fundamentally too decent a guy to take advantage of the tipsy and besotted Isabelle.

The second half of the play (whose obstacles to physical consummation render our count Gus, Interrupted) takes place in the singer's pink and purple living room, adorned with two portraits of the Madonna and one of Venus. And indeed, both Gus and Henry are mama’s boys in different ways, while Gus admonishes Isabelle that she is a "baby" rather than the freethinking seductress that she wants to be. All of the men infantilize her at various points, debating whether she should return to live with own mother or stay with Henry (her only two choices). The fact that much of this 85 year-old play’s commentary on gender roles and expectations could easily be set today makes an unflattering argument about American society but a good argument for Strictly Dishonorable’s continued relevance, and this revival more than does honor to it. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler

Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.

When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.