At Wit's End | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

At Wit's End, Northlight Theatre. This new musical, set in 1929, asks us to believe that the Algonquin Round Table celebrated its tenth anniversary of bitching and feasting by putting on a show that depicted the birth of the New Yorker as the by-product of a lengthy stalking. Delivered with juicy details is the very one-sided courtship of cofounder Jane Grant, married to Harold Ross at the time, by scathing theater critic Alexander Woollcott--Grant's colleague, mentor, financial backer, and would-be captor. This is an unpleasant story even by 1929's less PC standards. And it makes a flimsy frame for a script: why would the likes of Helen Hayes, Tallullah Bankhead, and Dorothy Parker (all weakly impersonated) reenact this rather than hush it up?

Otherwise Cheri Coons and Michael Duff's new work is engaging. Their rollicking Jazz Age score perfectly suits Joe Leonardo's sprightly staging and Richard and Jacqueline Penrod's sumptuous re-creation of the Algonquin Hotel restaurant, still extant. Alas, these grand illusions are pulled up short by the dialogue: quips by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber stand out starkly against Coon's conventionally catty repartee. Blake Hammond fully fleshes out the crassly conniving Woollcott, but as scheming goes, he can't hold a candle to Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. And it's absurd how long it takes Susie McMonagle's all-suffering Grant to catch on to Woollcott's crude machinations (in the bittersweet "Some Kind of Friend"). Sean Fortunato's gruff, clueless Ross never gets it. At Wit's End plays an ugly story for laughs, then suddenly sees that it's not that funny.

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