Chicago Theatre Review
Recreating Comedy From the Fabulous 50’s!
Moon Over Buffalo – BrightSide Theatre
In the second offering of BrightSide Theatre’s sixth season, we return to the fabulous, more innocent 1950’s. This is the era when television became king and began to challenge the legitimate stage for audiences. And, if instead of staying home to watch “I Love Lucy” and “Father Knows Best,” people felt like an evening out, entertainment could be guaranteed in movies directed by greats like Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and George Cukor. It’s within this framework that this play is set.
Ken Ludwig is noted for his farces, comedies and the libretti for a handful of musicals. This 1995 comedy, remembered primarily as the play that coaxed Carol Burnett back to the Broadway stage, is Mr. Ludwig’s fourth, in a long career. In spite of other notable works, including “The Fox on the Fairway,” “The Game’s Afoot” and the musical “Crazy for You,” none of his plays have ever achieved the brilliance of his magnum opus, “Lend Me a Tenor.” But this particular situation comedy, which exhibits quite a few madcap, slapstick moments, is still a fun and entertaining evening of theatre. However, whereas audiences needn’t be opera aficionados to enjoy “Lend Me a Tenor,” this particular play is a bit more fun for the theatergoer who’s also spent some time on stage himself.
The play demands fast-paced action and breakneck dialogue. Its characters are all bigger than life and continually bickering, insulting one another and constantly trying to get through an endless array of confusion. Like “Lend Me a Tenor,” this comedy is a period piece. It also features a heavy drinking, philandering middle-age male lead, with a theatrical wife who’s insanely jealous of her husband’s attention to other women. In addition, it spotlights a young stage manager trying to keep everyone on track and, as in “Lend Me a Tenor,” a character who passes out and is then thought to have disappeared.
“Moon Over Buffalo” revolves around a middle-aged husband and wife team of actors, who are touring the country with low-budget repertory productions of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Private Lives.” While playing at a small, regional theater in Buffalo, George and Charlotte Hay, who do truly love and respect each other, get into yet another fight. Tension mounts when Charlotte suspects that her husband is having an affair with Eileen, one of the company’s younger actresses. To complicate matters, rumors spread that legendary movie director, Frank Capra, who’s filming a sequel to “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” is desperately searching for replacements for an injured Ronald Coleman and his leading lady, Greer Garson. Supposedly the director’s en route to Buffalo to audition George and Charlotte.
Meanwhile, Rosalind, the couple’s pretty, young daughter, who left acting for a more sane and secure life in advertising, has arrived to announce her engagement to Howard, a shy, television weather forecaster. Add to this mix Charlotte’s difficult, selectively deaf, mother, who helps out backstage and sometimes plays small roles; Paul, Rosalind’s handsome, conscientious actor/stage manager, and former fiancee; and Richard, the family’s lawyer, who also has a thing for Charlotte. Soon, as they say, complications arise and broad comedy ensues.
Director Aaron Henrickson returns to BrightSide, after earlier directing “Rumors,” and has staged Ludwig’s play with plenty of energy and wild abandon. Every so often the mania overtakes the proceedings making it difficult to understand the dialogue. But, this is, after all, a crackpot comedy in the style of the Marx Brothers classics. Once the audience settles in to the frantic energy and the fast-paced rhythm of the production, they simply must take a deep breath and go with the flow. There’s a great deal of running, fast entrances and exits, yelling, slamming of doors and mistaken identities (always a surefire laugh) and even some impressive, Errol Flynn-like swordplay, courtesy of fight choreographer, Alex Farrington.
The backstage scenic design by Brett Baleski is colorful, authentic-looking and stylishly dilapidated. He’s depicted the greenroom of Buffalo’s rundown regional playhouse, utilizing the theatre’s aisles to represent additional exits. In the opening scene, as well as during a portion of Act II, the scene seamlessly shifts to an onstage performance, with two vine-covered balconies creating the posh French Riviera hotel of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” Despite some confusion among the characters about which play they’re actually doing, this is the matinee du jour. During the performance George and Charlotte do their best to impress Frank Capra with their talent. The attention to detail, especially in Shana Hall’s lovely period costumes and Jim Heatherly’s props, is always present in this production.
As the leading man, Rob Frankel is impressive. He plays George Hay, a passionate, overexcited and sometimes over-baked ham actor. His fencing skills are admirable, his line delivery and comic timing are spot on, but his drunken bit is a little over-the-top. Still, the opening night audience enjoyed all the physical comedy. Mary K. Nigohosian is terrific as his actress wife, Charlotte. Her deadpan takes are classic. Audiences easily empathize with the frustration felt by this poor woman in dealing with the antics of her lothario husband, as well as with her passionate desire to transfer her talent from stage to screen. The chemistry between Ms. Nigohosian and Mr. Frankel is strong, honest and nicely-balanced.
Bev Coscarelli makes a lovable curmudgeon as Ethel, Charlotte’s mother, and has some fine, comic moments throughout. Jack Smith does well in the thankless role of
Richard, the lawyer infatuated with Charlotte and, although she’s often difficult to understand during her character’s belabored crying jags, Angela Aiello does a nice job as Eileen.
The standout performances in this production, however, come from the younger cast members. Peter Surma is hilarious as the nerdy weatherman, Howard. He’s especially excellent playing all the confusion and mistaken identity, costumed in a General Patton uniform that’s meant as a surprise gift for George. Hopefully we’ll see more of this young actor in the future. As Paul, the put-upon stage manager and company understudy, Richard Allen is a very impressive young actor. He’s a comic lead capable of serving up clear enunciation, excellent projection, crackerjack comic timing, laced with understated charisma. He’s terrific, particularly when paired with the extraordinary Becca Duff, in the role of Rosalind. This young actress is attractive, perky, clear-spoken, has great comic chops. Ms. Duff can undeniably take control of a scene. She’s especially funny understudying in the “Private Lives” segment, particularly when the entire set falls down around her.
As contemporary comedies go, this isn’t Ken Ludwig’s best, but it certainly offers an evening of laughs. BrightSide’s production features some of the area’s finest, up-and-coming young actors, as well as a few talented veterans of the Chicago stage. It’s well-directed and, except for a difficult, overwrought drunk scene, is intelligent and entertaining. This warmhearted comedy will definitely make audiences forget that a bone-chilling winter has stubbornly returned to the Chicago area just a few feet from where they’re sitting.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 11-27 by BrightSide Theatre, at the Theatre at Meiley-Swallow Hall of North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth Street, Naperville, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 630-447-8497 or by going to www.brightsidetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.