As a playwright and actor, Harbor Stage Company cofounder Brenda Withers excels at physical comedy and biting satire. Her latest play, Bread & Butter — a very loose spin on George S. Kaufman’s 1925 comedy The Butter and Egg Man, the only play he wrote without a partner — is what the artist-run Wellfleet company calls the “screwball opener” of its 2023 season. But it’s actually more than that: a fresh take on an old-fashioned genre.
Bread & Butter, which Withers has written, directed, and acts in, is hilarious and wisecracking, with rat-a-tat screwball dialogue and a big, bright, black-and-white, comic-strip-style set designed by Evan Farley. But it doesn’t have the teasing romance so often found in screwball comedy or the physical gags and slamming doors of farce. Instead, Withers offers a winking send-up of her own creative process and the company’s financial struggles.
Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man is often regarded as a precursor to Mel Brooks’s The Producers, the story of Broadway sleazeballs and an out-of-town rube vying to cash in on an unlikely stage hit. In Withers’s reworking, she plays the role of Mac, an aspiring playwright and frustrated assistant to David Fraioli’s Becker, a lowlife producer. They’re trying to put on a racy comedy starring the dimwitted diva Francesca, played with delightful hamminess by Amie Lytle, but they need an investor to help them pull it off. In walks the naïve get-rich-quick hopeful Peter Jones, played with dopey charm by Harbor Stage regular Robin Bloodworth. He’s joined by Ari Lew as Fritchie, made up as a George S. Kaufman lookalike. As is usually the case in stories like this, inanity ensues. The play-within-the-play is a hit in spite of itself.
Becker promises Mac that his next production — always the next production — will be one of her own plays, but she doesn’t believe it. Fraioli has always been an intense dramatic performer — in Buried Child and Glengarry Glen Ross at Harbor Stage and memorably in The Pillowman at WHAT — and here he makes the most of Becker, a mogul only in his own eyes. As his sidekick, Withers slips in a few of the slyest sarcastic asides. Kaufman, who was an Algonquin Round Table regular, had a mischievous edge to his wit (Dinner at Eight, You Can’t Take It With You), and Withers gives that a contemporary twist.
Lytle’s Francesca has some of the funniest bits, especially one in which she gropes herself with kitchen-mitt props. And the play has a devil-may-care playfulness to it that befits its behind-the-scenes Jazz Age theatrical setting. John R. Malinowski’s shadowless lighting design nicely underlines the cartoonish aspects of the set. And there’s a subtle Guys and Dolls feel to the costumes, a show that Kaufman directed on Broadway.
The Harbor Stage has been doing more than a few real-estate comedies of late, and this play about the unlikelihood of making a mint in the theater fits the trend. The company has been squeezed by the high cost of staying on the Outer Cape and by the intimate scale of its tiny stage. But while prices are going up everywhere post-Covid (and are crazy high on Broadway), the Harbor Stage is holding to a $25 cap on ticket prices and keeping a pay-what-you-can performance for each of its productions. In its 11th year, it’s still going strong, and Withers’s sumptuous tart of a comedy is a great way to start things off.
The event: Bread & Butter, a new play by Brenda Withers
The time: Through July 8, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 5 p.m.; additional show, Wednesday, July 5 at 7:30 p.m.
The place: Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet
The cost: $25 at harborstage.org or 508-349-6800; pay-what-you-can performance on Friday, June 23