Theater Barn opens 2015 season with Ken Ludwig’s Moon Over Buffalo
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray
Larry Murray: Set in 1950’s America with nonstop laughs that barely gave its opening night audience a chance to catch its collective breath, Ken Ludwig’s Moon Over Buffalo, which was written in 1995, proves that its timeless combination of satire, slapstick and sight gags still make for an immense crowd-pleaser. His earlier turns at farce – Lend Me a Tenor and Fox on the Fairway are two others – have established him one of the most popular purveyors of light comedy to summer and community theater. Moon Over Buffalo spoofs the theatre, television and film, as well as families, sweethearts, egos and even your local weathermen. Nobody escapes his gaze unscathed.
Gail M. Burns: I love how Ludwig’s humor is simultaneously low-brow and literate, and the cast here does a great job of being broadly physical as well as bringing home the speeches from Shakespeare, Rostrand, and Coward. George (Phil Rice) and Charlotte Hay (Mary Nichols) are a married couple of b-grade actors We meet them in Buffalo, NY, touring Noel Coward’s Private Lives and Edmund Rostrand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in rep. Her stone-deaf mother, Ethel (Joan Coombs) is their costume mistress and a bit player, and Paul (Noah Mefford), the man they thought would be their son-in-law, is also an actor/administrator with the company. Their daughter Rosalind (Alyssa H. Chase) has recently left Paul, and the theatre, in search of a “normal life” and arrives with a new fiancé, a local TV weatherman named Howard (Caleb John Cushing), in tow. Another interloper amidst the mayhem is Richard (Sky Vogel), a wealthy and successful “lawyer to the stars,” who has come to woo Charlotte away to that fabled land of normalcy. On the day that famed film director Frank Capra is coming to see the matinee to consider George and Charlotte for leads in his new Scarlet Pimpernel movie, George learns he has knocked up the ingénue Eileen (Clara Childress) and goes on a bender. Chaos ensues.
Larry: I don’t know who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for this superb production, the director or the actors, but the entire creative team went the extra mile to make this fast-paced story go by in a flash. It proves that Theater Barn has retro screwball comedy chops. There are no small roles in this play, making casting the key to a good production, which is why Joan Coombs was a real standout for me. She plays the mother-in-law who is deaf as a post, thereby setting up many of the play’s awkward situations as she putters about as wardrobe mistress and bit player. Coombs plays her with steadfast determination and total obliviousness as she picks up the pieces the others leave behind, including Cyrano’s floral trousers which always seemed to end up in two pieces.
But the real trouper in all this is Phil Rice, the show’s director who, due to the illness of the original actor, ended up playing the central role of George as well. And it’s a juicy role, too, the star turn. I had some rare-for-a-critic full belly laughs during his second-act drunk scene in which he gets to drop his drawers, recite Shakespeare and, literally, come out of the closet. The only straight man in the show is the lawyer, Richard, ably and subtly played by Vogel, who tries to woo away Charlotte.
Gail: Rice did an outstanding job taking on an enormous role at the last minute. I enjoyed his chemistry with Nichols as well as his physical fearlessness. Rice, Vogel, and Coombs are Theater Barn stalwarts and I always expect the best from them, but the rest of the cast are young and new to this region. Once again, the Barn has come up with some great young talent. Mefford and Cushing are talented physical comics.who had me laughing out loud. Women are often not directed to be as physical in their comedy, but Nichols and Chase managed to maintain their modesty in 1950’s attire while flinging themselves about the stage with great abandon.
Larry: The set with its five doors was classic French formula farce, And the doors made a satisfying sound as they were slammed, even as the flats themselves wobbled a bit. The theatre scenes, both behind and in front of a scrim, were very nicely done given the modest stage size. In fact with a little origami used on the wings during the Private Lives and Cyrano scenes, it effectively maximized the playing area. We don’t credit Abe Phelps often enough for his design and construction skills that are involved. Similarly the lighting design by Allen Phelps helped set the mood during these important scenes.
Gail: I felt the weak link in the show was the costumes by Shimra Jamie Fine. Except for Nichols’ primary ensemble and Chase’s day dress, both of which channeled Edith Head’s iconic designs for Lucy Ricardo, the costumes weren’t particularly period, the ones for the Cyrano and Private Lives characters weren’t particularly evocative of those shows or those eras, and some of the pieces were downright ugly. I have no idea what that dress Chase wore as Sybil in Private Lives was supposed to be, but it managed to make a very pretty young actress look lumpy and dowdy.
Larry: One of the great skills that Ludwig has as a playwright is being able to paint a word picture in the audiences head. At one point the actors are talking about ludicrous casting and the suggestion that Eleanor Roosevelt could be the star of a children’s musical came up – with Roosevelt playing Peter Pan. Just imagining the former first lady flying around in a harness with a group of children brought one of the evening’s biggest laughs. What tickled your funny bone, Gail?
Gail: I am showing my political stripes here, but I loved Coombs line to the effect that without the influence of the theatre we would all be Republicans. In hindsight, that joke is sadly anachronistic – the people who were affiliated with the Republican Party in 1953 were a far cry from today’s Republicans – but the line gave me a laugh anyway.
Larry: As the July 4 weekend approaches and work has intensified in these parts, I was in dire need of something light and fluffy to help smooth over the week’s frustrations. Moon Over Buffalo with all its abundant laughter and old fashioned physical comedy proved to be the antidote to a demanding week. It is pure escapism of the best kind, and at the Theater Barn, not only well done, but also very affordable.
The Theater Barn presents Moon Over Buffalo by Ken Ludwig, Directed by Phil Rice; Costume Design – Shimra Jamie Fine; Set Design – Abe Phelps; Lighting Design – Allen Phelps; Stage Management – Cheryl Ann Thompson.
Cast: George Hay – Phil Rice; Charlotte Hay – Mary Nichols; Ethel – Joan Coombs; Rosalind – Allysa J. Chase; Howard – Caleb John Cushing; Eileen – Clara Childress; Paul – Noah Mefford; Richard – Sky Vogel. Two hours with one 15 minute intermission. June 26-July 5, 2015. The Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. www.theaterbarn.com 518-794-8989.