Moon Over Buffalo, by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Phil Rice. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Alyssa H. Chase, Joan Coombs, Noah Mefford; photo: provided
"The House of Usher Repertory Theater"
In 1995 when playwright Ken Ludwig followed up his major hit, "Lend Me a Tenor" with another American Farce, "Moon Over Buffalo" starring Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco, it was supposed to be a major laugh riot. The term "laff-riot" had first appeared on an off-Broadway marquee about twenty years earlier describing a new comedy that was anything but a riot of laughs. Somehow the new Ludwig show was also not a major proponent of outrageous laughter. When the two stars were temporarily replaced with Lynn Redgrave and Robert Goulet it remained fun but not a big yock of a show.
Later in London the two stars were Joan Collins and Frank Langella and once again it was a fun show but not one where the laughter never ceased. Burnett was nominated for a TONY Award, by the way, and her performance bordered on the manic characterizations that had made her so popular on her weekly television show. Something clearly was wrong with this hit play and now I know exactly where the problem fell. Stars. Stars should not play stars in a farce.
In its current incarnation at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York there are no stars in the performance. Instead we have good actors from whom we expect only good work. They are playing the two stars who have been reduced to second-class tours performing plays in repertory because they have no other lives to lead. George and Charlotte Hay are not comic actors, they are serious actors. Their repertoire includes major Shakespeare, Shaw, O'Neill and Coward plays. They know how to play these roles and they provide more then merely respectable performances. Audiences know they can rely on this company for good, substantial theater. What no audience knows, however, is the chaotic and chronically outrageous private lives of the Hays and their troupe. Here, backstage, is where the comedy lies in Ludwig's play and without stars from whom we expect great things, amusing things, phenomenal things the play can have a fair viewing and, guess what? LAFF-RIOT.
Director Phil Rice has always been adept at comedy. He has not lost his touch as the director of this show. He also appears in the play in the role of George Hay - star. As his wife Charlotte we have an actress named Mary Nichols. The two play so well together that they make us want to schedule a private play-date with them. Both actors, of whom we have no actual expectations, are adept at comedy, both verbal and physical comedy, and together or apart they make us laugh while making us care about their characters.
Nichols is delicious as she tries to keep things organized, exciting, worthwhile and self-satisfying. That her character considers leaving the husband who has toted her around the country year in and year out seems understandable yet ridiculous and is a perfect combination in Nichols adroit hands.
Rice is a wonderful stage drunk, a terrific Shakespearean ham (just the light meat) and a wonderful physical comedian taking prat falls and body rolls and costume mishaps in stride. He pronounces his Shakespeare and his Rostand lines with a marvelously arch pride and joy as the words roll over his lips and cascade into the theater.
Playing their daughter Rosalind with a very droll drawl is Alyssa H. Chase who is never out of step with Rosalind's parents. She can out-tantrum them with style and easily does it once or twice. In her playing of the part Chase makes it very clear that Rosalind adores her crazy family and that she relishes her reluctant time with them.
As her grandmother and Charlotte's mother is the actress Joan Coombs who couldn't give a bad performance if she was directed to do so. She has a moment, as Ethel, in the second act where she has to cross half the stage and exit. Her Ethel does a slow-burn and a lengthy walk that grows funnier by the second, more hilarious by the moment and climaxes with a gesture that shouldn't work but in Coombs' talented hands absolutely rocks the house.
Noah Mefford plays Paul, once Rosalind's intended and now George's right-hand man. He is a wonderfully quirky actor with sensual gestures and silly facial expressions. He is a very winning actor in a role that gives him a chance to win, and another, and another. When the four of them attempt to perform the opening scene of Noel Coward's comedy "Private Lives" it is a go-for-broke comic interlude like nothing else in theatrical literature.
As Paul's polar opposite in the race for Rosalind is Caleb John Cushing as Howard. In his own peculiar way he is just as funny as Mefford's Paul. For Chase's Rosalind he represents the diffucult choice. That choice is eliminated through the very silly presence of an actress named Eileen whose personal dilemma is solved in many ways by Howard. Actress Clara Childress gives Eileen just what the character deserves. Filling out the "adult" conditionals in this company is Richard, a Lawyer, played by Sky Vogel. The dryest and least humorous character in the play Vogel's Richard delivers two of the funniest lines the playwright has written and gets two of the biggest laughs of the night with them.
Director Rice has done wonders with the farce-timing of the play. The traditional five entrances are all used with great and perfect emphasis and the play grows funnier and funnier each time another door opens. Abe Phelps simple yet complicated set works so very well for this play and Allen Phelps lighting enhances the brittle briskness of the comedy. Shimra Jamie Fine has provided this company with the perfect look for 1953, the year in which the play has been set.
So - no stars playing stars makes for brighter stars in the long run. Say that over five times when you cast your next play about theater stars, or movie stars, or television stars. No Stars. Just good actors in a well-crafted comedy to get those much needed laughs. This show is getting the Theater Barn's 2015 season off to a laff-riot of a start.
Moon Over Buffalo plays at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through July 5. For tickets and infornation call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.