Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Boffo ‘Buffalo’ comes loaded with laughs

Published in The News Tribune, October 5, 2007

Note: I got busy with other things and wasn't able to post this one in a timely manner. “Moon Over Buffalo” has completed its tour at Olympia Little Theatre.

Olympia Little Theatre’s “Moon Over Buffalo” is what a staged comedy should be. It is a wild and wacky farce. It’s “Waiting for Guffman” meets “Noises Off” meets your favorite Shakespeare comedy as performed by the Marx Brothers. Be prepared to leave the theater exhausted from laughter.

Written by Ken Ludwig and directed by T.S. Samland, “Moon Over Buffalo” takes the audience back in time to the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1953 when both Buffalo and regional theater were on the verge of dying – Buffalo is in the midst of a depression, and regional theater is being killed by television.

But George and Charlotte Hay (Tom Sanders and Rikki Corey), stars and directors at the Erlanger, are determined to hold on and make a go of it. They are actors who are well past their prime but who persist in playing romantic leads and cling desperately to hopes of being discovered by Hollywood once again. (They had enjoyed some brief flickers of fame in a distant past.)

Their daughter, Rosalind (Christina Bargel), who has left a career in theater for advertising, returns home to introduce her new and nerdy fiancé, Howard (Alberto Cintron) to her parents. George and Charlotte are preparing for the matinee performance of either “Cyrano de Bergerac” or “Private Lives.” They’re doing both plays in repertory, but disagree about which one they’re supposed to be doing that afternoon – a huge foreshadowing of just some of the comical mayhem to come (this play is anything but subtle).

Of course Rosalind doesn’t want to admit it, but deep in her heart she is still in love with the theater and with her ex-boyfriend, Paul (Erik Cornelius), an actor and toady in the Hays’ troop.

George and Charlotte find out that the great director Frank Capra is coming to town to see a performance with an eye toward casting both George and Charlotte in his new film. They also learn that the young actress Eileen (Hannah Eklund) is pregnant with George’s baby. Charlotte threatens to leave, George gets drunk, Eileen runs off, Rosalind has to stand in for her in “Private Lives,” everyone except for Rosalind mistakes Howard for Frank Capra and a falling-down drunk George makes his “Private Lives” entrance costumed as Cyrano.

Most of the cast have significant time on stage, but the play revolves around George. Without a really skilled comic actor in the role of George, “Moon Over Buffalo” could easily devolve into a slapstick nightmare of absurd histrionics. By casting Tom Sanders as George, OLT made sure that the only calamity would be on the stage of the Erlanger in Buffalo.

Sanders is outstanding in a challenging, physical role in which he has to engage in a mock fight and convincingly portray a drunken buffoon who falls all over the stage. His pratfalls, his timing and his rubbery face are perfect. He is believable as a sloppy drunk and a great classical actor who desperately loves his wife despite his philandering.

Corey is excellent as Charlotte. It is Charlotte, by the way, who engages in the wild sword fight with George, and she handles the sword with much athleticism.

Also outstanding are Cintron, who plays the hapless Howard with great sympathy, and Barbara-Ann Smith as Charlotte’s more-than-slightly-deaf mother, Ethel.

The only time the comedic bits seem a little too strained and predictable is in the play-within-a-play when Rosalind plays Amanda in “Private Lives” but her Elyot appears in the guise of Cyrano.

For this performance, OLT pulled from storage an old revolving set that had not been used in 20 years, and the props boxes and costume closets were raided for old radios and trunks and classical costumes. Paul Gisi, who shows up in a bit small part as the Hays’ lawyer (and Charlotte’s lover), Richard, designed and built the set. He and costume designer Christina Hughes deserve credit for creating the ambiance of the old theatre. But I must say that if there were no sets or costumes at all, this play would still be outlandishly funny because of the fast-paced action absurd plot.

Hooray for slapstick!

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