Photo: Philip Bosco and Carol Burnett in Broadway cast of Moon Over Buffalo (www.kenludwig.com)
Moon Over Buffalo continues at Langham Court Theatre until January 26th. Tickets are at 384-2142.
What can you tell us about this comedy of backstage theatre life?
Well, as another critic pointed out astutely, this is Waiting for Guffman meets Noises Off and playwright Ken Ludwig is clearly tapping in to a more traditional farce form involving mistaken identities, ambition in the face of failure, deception and drunkenness and backstage and onstage disaster in this play about a couple of over-the-hill repertory actors, George and Charlotte Hay, touring the backwaters in 1953 with tired versions of Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives. This 1995 play brought Carol Burnett back to Broadway after 30 years, for which she received a Tony nomination. Interestingly, a documentary film was made about this comeback and the play's trial run and Broadway premiere, called Moon Over Broadway, that shows a lot of the tensions during rehearsals among the playwright, director and the actors who were trying to make the play work. In many ways I can't help wishing it was this film I was able to review rather than the play itself, which, for me could only rise above its mediocrity with actors at the level of Carol Burnett playing it. In a community theatre production, as seen onstage at Langham Court, the weaknesses of the script become all too clear, even in what is a very serviceable production.
And what did you feel the weaknesses were in the play?
There is not one character in this 8 person play for which the audience can care about in even the smallest way. Total lack of empathy signals a kind of theatre that is veering hard toward cartoon-land where you don't really care what happens to these people and therefore laughing at their misfortunes becomes easy. But at the same time, there is a lot of real misfortune packed into this two-hour show; a husband cheats on his wife and impregnates his ingenue; his wife seeks revenge by planning to run off with their lawyer; the couple dreams of making it to Hollywood and into a Frank Capra movie, but it becomes all too clear that they are both well past their sell-by dates. Meanwhile, their daughter is trying to separate herself from the 'life of the theatre' by marrying a boring weatherman (who in this production has a problem with somersaulting over furniture a lot) rather than the supporting actor in the company who is her true love. The climax of the play involves a drunken George playing Cyrano while everyone else onstage is performing Private Lives. All of this screams 'formula' to me and seems to be a mish-mash of themes and characters taken from Ludwig's own past shows (Crazy for You, Lend me a Tenor) and from, quite frankly, better plays such as Michael Frayn's Noises Off.
How does the Langham production do in the face of what you consider to be a pretty shallow farce?
There is a lot of experience up there on the stage at Langham, and in the hands of equally experienced director Dick Stille the show moves along at the necessary fast clip and with the quick timing needed in a show with five doors on the set that are constantly opening and closing with characters running in and out of them in constant manic energy. However, the mania of this production begins to grate as right off the top there is a lot of yelling (not helped by the fact that one character is deaf and requires being yelled at all the time) that only increases into Act Two. But leads Alan Penty and Fran Patterson play their roles with lots of physicality (as seen in the band-aid and bruises on Penty) and the appropriate ham acting called upon by the play itself. They are well-supported by the rest of the company and by the set and costume design. I would just like to see a moment or two of genuine feeling from this couple that has been together, through thick and thin, for 35 years. Surely it must hurt very deeply to have your husband cheat on you or to have your wife want to leave you for another man. At no point in this production did I feel for George or Charlotte, so their eventual (and in the world of comedy, inevitable) reconciliation held no satisfaction. The risk of farce is that of making the audience indifferent, even cruel, in their attitude toward characters and that is unfortunately what I see happening in this production, mostly due to the shallowness of the play itself.
It's kind of surprising that you in particular, as a theatre person yourself, could not warm up to a play about actors and a life in the theatre...any final thoughts about that?
There are many terrific plays about the theatre: Noises Off (as mentioned before); Life in the Theatre by David Mamet; The Dresser by Ronald Harwood. Of course, Noel Coward wrote plays about the theatre, including Waiting in the Wings that Langham mounted last season. What holds all these plays above Moon Over Buffalo in my estimation is that they are all love letters to the theatre, as much as they may also satirize the form. This play lacks this loving aspect and instead makes a life in the theatre look both dated and foolish, especially when set in the context of the early 50s and the rise of television. If George and Charlotte Hay were still in love with the theatre, despite their mediocrity, we could love them as well. What we are given by playwright Ken Ludwig is quite a bitter and cynical view of theatre as a dying art form, where the most these down-on-their-luck stage actors can dream of is success in the movies. A bit sad for those of us who cherish this live performing art form so much.