The title character of Springtime for Henry is a big, spoiled baby. In British playwright Benn Levy’s stylish 1931 comedy, the question is whether he’ll be taken in hand by straitlaced new secretary Miss Smith, who shows every inclination to give him a spanking, or slinky married sophisticate Julia Jelliwell, who’s as likely to ask for one. We first meet Henry Dewlip, tantrum thrower, martini swiller, and heir to an automotive business, as he storms from his bedroom in red pajamas, letting loose an explosion of papers all over his grandiose if cluttered sitting room, evidently in piqued pursuit of a storming-out secretary. Her replacement, one-woman decency police Miss Smith, will very nearly be his Waterloo.
Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Nicholas Martin, who has a knack with vintage bubbly, rescues Henry from several decades of obscurity — though it’s a marvel that a one-set, four-character comedy left over from an age when theater economics were not so restricting has been allowed to languish. Martin had intended the play as a vehicle for Robert Sean Leonard, who’d have made a more dashing Dewlip than does cuddly Christopher Fitzgerald (who is nonetheless comically appealing). But the Leonard casting was waylaid when he was invited to star with Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the current stellar Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
The production, it turns out, survives the loss and retains its arch if vacuous sparkle, which is redolent of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde (there’s even a joke that smacks of being Ernest in town and Jack in the country) crossed with Howard Hawks and George Cukor. Moreover, the Huntington design team does Levy’s elegant piffle up to perfection, providing Dewlip digs splendid enough to serve as a museum — albeit decorated with mounted animal heads on which the sloppy bon vivant tosses his laundry. Dewlap’s lady friends sport duds both sumptuous and indicative of character — primly fluttering for Miss Smith, plungingly seductive for Mrs. Jelliwell. And Martin’s spry young thespian foursome dip into the well of glibness to drink headily and deep.
Don’t get me wrong: Martin has not conducted some theatrical dig and unearthed a classic. Springtime for Henry, which was made into a 1934 film and toured to the provinces through most of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s by the American actor Edward Everett Horton, is not The Importance of Being Earnest, or even Private Lives. But its fluffy tale of a bounder snatched from reformation at the last, breezily amoral minute (which in the Huntington production finds Fitzgerald’s Henry doing a flying caper into his boudoir) has its tongue-in-cheeky charms. Even the incorrigible Dewlip has standards; out to seduce his impenetrably dense best pal’s wife, he asserts the belief that women should be " stolen, not bought. " On the other hand, cuckolded chum John Jelliwell shows just how far a stiff upper lip can be bent when its owner is smitten; giddy for Miss Smith, he’s willing to overlook even murder with a flick of his upper-class hand.
Martin takes the Brit period piece, which he has compared to the screwball film comedies of the era, and imbues it with American bounce. The diction is precise and the rejoinders are deliciously cutting, but the comedy is physical. The characters ping-pong balletically about the apartment, from the cocktail cabinet hidden in a standing globe to the stagelike stair landing to the casting-couch chaise. Martin even throws in a top-hat-and-tails dance interlude for the Jelliwells, something hovering between Fred and Ginger and the Follies, to cover the intermissionless break between the play’s acts two and three.
Among the players, blonde-bobbed, red-lipped, ramrod-straight Jessica Stone is first among equals as the unflappable but not invulnerable Miss Smith. Fitzgerald, slipping into a sporty double-breasted ensemble (complete with cravat) without removing his pajamas, exudes an oddly boyish charisma for a roué, but he’s pretty cute, even when irate. As the jaded Julia, who’s married to a presentable bonehead, Mia Barron shows off ace timing and a daring lot of back. And as her skimmingly educated " old boy " spouse, Jeremy Shamos is a model of addled frippery, whether pushing carburetors or throwing Greek mythology into the Cuisinart. Together the four pass a mighty polished plate of bon-bons. But if you want food for thought, eat before you go.