Back to our Roots: The Butter and Egg Man Brings Comic Delight

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photo by Jiuxing June Xie.

Invoking all the rollicking charm of a good old-fashioned comedy, The Butter and Egg Man is an affectionate send-up of the theater business and all its vanities, venalities, and thrills. Deftly directed by Anne Coleman ’10, Drama Board’s spring offering immerses the audience in a long-lost tradition –- that which used to be called good clean fun.

Playwright George S. Kaufman wrote The Butter and Egg Man in 1925, and the play’s comedic rhythm and witty repartee presage his highly regarded later works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It With You. Launching a theatrical conceit that would go on to inspire The Producers and other works zinging the showbiz industry, The Butter and Egg Man opens with two hustling producers who find themselves desperately in need of cash to put on a show. Consequently they hoodwink Peter Jones, a wide-eyed naïf – the titular “Butter and Egg Man” – to finance their endeavor, a decidedly “medium brow” melodrama entitled “Her Lesson.” But no one stays innocent for long in show business, and the producers realize they got far more than they bargained for.

Rarely produced professionally, The Butter and Egg Man is the most overlooked play in the canon of a playwright long overshadowed by illustrious contemporaries such as Eugene O’Neill. Coleman says she appreciated the challenge of revitalizing an obscure work: “I wanted to revisit this show and give it an energy that makes it worth doing again. It was incredibly satisfying to take on an under-realized work by an under-acknowledged great playwright and bring it to a modern audience.” Coleman adds that the play’s content, particularly the material concerning the absurd farcicality of Broadway, was very personal to Kaufman. Elements of The Butter and Egg Man correspond to Kaufman’s life, particularly an Act Three plot twist that jeopardizes the future of the producers’ show.

In her production, Coleman valiantly resurrects Kaufman’s witty dialogue along with the accelerated, screwball pacing seldom seen in contemporary comedies. Her staging highlights theater’s most cherished tropes: the city rat’s disdain for the country mouse, the vainglorious pretentiousness in need of puncturing, and both the allure and folly of show business. Coleman pares the show down to its essentials to emphasize that first and foremost, The Butter and Egg Man is a comedy. Kaufman was a master of comic speech, and Coleman’s intrepid actors execute blustery patter, frantic excuse-making, puerile foolishness, and snide derision with polished precision. “I wanted to do a barebones staging and let the text speak for itself,” Coleman explains. “Kaufman is celebrated for his unique turns of phrase, so I had the actors physically demonstrate and embody his words, allowing the text to shine.”

An ensemble production, The Butter and Egg Man highlights the talents of many performers in a variety of choice roles. As she directs her final college show, Coleman relishes the opportunity to work with a number of new actors and engage with the next generation of performers at Swarthmore. Her efforts come to sensational fruition when the entire ensemble gathers together for a pyrotechnic confrontation over the disastrous opening of “Her Lesson.” It’s a terrific scene, hilariously constructed, meticulously directed, and performed with energetic enthusiasm. “Our show is all about energy,” says Harry Apostoleris ’12, who plays would-be producer Peter Jones. “We want to maintain the rapid pace of the show and keep building up the energy and excitement.”

Metronome set to vivace, The Butter and Egg Man advances towards its denouement with raucous joviality. The roots of American theater are firmly entrenched in entertainment, and The Butter and Egg Man harnesses a euphoric momentum that contains all the joys and none of the predictability of a classic feel-good comedy. A nostalgic tribute to the best and worst of show business, the play is an infinitely enjoyable dose of old-fashioned, forget-your-troubles-theater.

The Butter and Egg Man plays in the Pearson-Hall Theatre LPAC Friday, April 9 at 8.p.m. Saturday, April 10 at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 11 at 2 p.m. The ensemble includes Harry Apostoleris ’12, Sebastian Bravo ’13, Jen Crick ’11, David Edelman ’11, Jessi Holler ’10, Elizabeth Keck ’13, Kim Kramer ’10, Hannah Martin ’13, Avilash Pahi ’13, Anna Sagaser ’13, Vic Vaiana ’12, and Zack Wiener ’12. The design team features costumes by Marissa Roque ’10, sets by Samantha Friedman ’10, sound by Anne Mecklenburg ’11, and lights by Jenna Davis ’12.

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