For a screwball family comedy purportedly in the warm-and-fuzzy tradition of You Can't Take It With You, Gertrude Tonkonogy's Three-Cornered Moon is one cold splash of water. This forgotten Depression-era gem, notable for burnishing Ruth Gordon's star on Broadway and providing a jaunty vehicle for Claudette Colbert on film, concerns a well-to-do, fatherless Brooklyn family ruined by the stock-market crash. You could call it a coming-of-age tale, in which the Rimplegar children -- three grown brothers and their sister, all used to living high on the hog with their eccentric mother -- lose their innocence. This is especially true for the sister, Elizabeth, in love with Donald, a novelist manqué so allergic to the very notion of earning a living that he surely was the prototype for TV's great labor-challenged beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs ("Work?").
Donald moves in with the family. When Elizabeth and her brothers are forced to take menial jobs to keep food on the table, her beau begins to look more and more like a deadbeat. That, at least, is how the playwright sees things. A Barnard girl who worked for a Broadway producer, Tonkonogy apparently tossed off her comedy -- something of a roman à clef about her own Brooklyn family -- in three weeks' time to prove she could do it better than Kaufman and Hart. In the end, she has Elizabeth engaged to the Rimplegars' other border, a doctor willing to give her a good smack when she needs it, and who makes love to her (in the old-fashioned sense) by literally renouncing art. Art has put not a single slice of bread on the table, not a lump of coal in the burner. Who needs it?
Brooks Atkinson, a fan, called Three-Cornered Moon "a whirlwind of impudent irrelevancies," by which I suppose he was referring to the various Rimplegars' tendency toward an excess of flibbertygibbetishness. In a crack production, such antics might be endearing; in anything less, they're tiresome, strident, and, by the end, have led the play long past its welcome. That's the case in Carl Forsman's lumbering revival at the Blue Heron Arts Center. The actors may not be as totally out of their depth as they appear here. But Forsman's formula for staging farce might as well have been every man for himself, so disconnected -- from one another, from the story, from the stage -- do these flighty folks come across. The result is nearly impossible to sit through.