More than two decades ago, playwright Ken Ludwig was credited with single-handedly saving the American farce from oblivion with his brilliant “Lend Me a Tenor.”
That ridiculous tale of backstage antics while putting on amateur opera in Cleveland kept Broadway audience in stitches for more than a year, and still does today, with a well-received revival of the play opening just two months ago.
After skewering opera with “Tenor,” Ludwig scored again with a zany new book to the Gershwin musical “Crazy For You,” giving that stage classic, about putting on an amateur theater production in the Wild West, a well-needed zip.
The Rialto waited with bated breath for the next pop of the playwright’s pen, and out came “Moon Over Buffalo,” a wacky look at the backstage antics of putting on theater in Buffalo.
Is there a pattern here? Yes: Ludwig writes about the pratfalls and hijinks that take place when trying to put on a theatrical production. “Tenor” and “Crazy For You” are very funny and chock-full of farce shtick: deaf jokes, spiked coffee, flying wigs, mistaken identities, mistaken sexual orientations, slamming doors and drunken monologues. But Ludwig seems to have run out of ideas before his pen hit the paper with his next opus, “Moon Over Buffalo.”
Comedienne extraordinaire Carol Burnett and theater veteran Phillip Bosco, who opened this show in New York, could not manage to hide the weak links in the script with their sizable talent, and neither can the actors in the current production, onstage at the Colonial Little Theater in Johnstown.
Like most farces, the story is simple but the relationships complicated. George and Charlotte Hay, a long-married couple and “minor royalty” of the theater, are still touring rotating repertory in 1953, just as TV is taking over their audience. Their bare-bones tour has stopped for a quick stay at Buffalo’s Erlanger Theater with “Private Lives” this afternoon and “Cyrano de Bergerac” tonight — or is it the other way around?
The Hays continue to dream of Hollywood, where Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson are shooting a Frank Capra film that should have been theirs, or so they believe. Their daughter Rosalind has recently left the troupe — also leaving her former boyfriend and company stage manager, Paul — in order to seek a more stable life offstage with Howard, a TV weatherman. Rosalind is not the only one with relationship issues. Charlotte suspects George of fooling around with ingénue Eileen, having pretty damning evidence — it’s hand-written in the trade paper Variety. But Charlotte is no shrinking violet; she has her own potential lover in the family’s attorney, Richard, who is dutifully waiting in the wings for the right moment to take the stage with his leading lady.
But hold on — there has been an accident in Hollywood, and Capra may need to replace Coleman. The director is rumored to be flying to Buffalo this very day to check out the Hays as possible leads. Can the family keep its act together long enough to impress the great man and get that shot at stardom?
There’s no shot at stardom with this script. They should stick with “Private Lives.” While the show does have some truly funny moments, the plot is predictable, allowing the audience to get to some of the punch lines before the playwright does.
Happily, most of the cast sails above the inadequacies of the script. Frank Pickus and Lisa Beth Adams do well as George and Charlotte, finding the correct timing and sass of actors who have been in the game for awhile. Pickus manages the drunk scenes without overplaying them, and Adams runs the race between imperiousness and sensitivity with ease and grace. Genevieve Mack is sufficiently fed up and frustrated as daughter Rosalind, torn between two men. As a well-needed foot placed in reality, Mark Finkle as Richard offers a breath of fresh air but is stuck with a one-dimensional role.
The breakout performance is Ryan Glynn as the stage-struck weatherman, Howard. With a never-fading Cheshire Cat grin, Glynn reveals just the right amount of larger-than-life twinge that the play really needs to make it funny.
The only real downside to the evening, other than the script, is the pace of Cheryl Charbonneau’s direction. While the evening stated at a good clip, as it progressed, the action took on a dreamy pace, allowing the audience to fully see the holes the playwright failed to fill with funny material.