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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 4 years ago

The Players Centre finds laughs in Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo"

“Moon Over Buffalo" isn't very well-written, but the Players actors still delivered plenty of laughs.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo” would make a nice extended Carol Burnett sketch. (Fun fact: Ludwig wrote the play as a Burnett vehicle in 1994.) The comedienne has other things to do now. But Ludwig’s farce is now on stage at the The Players Centre For Performing Arts.

The year is 1953. Meet George and Charlotte Hay; a formerly cute Hollywood couple. In their younger days, they starred in a few popular movies but never had a smash hit. After television came and put the final nail in their film career, the Hays returned to repertory theater. They now run a struggling, off-off-Broadway venue in Buffalo, New York. To these former movie stars, it might as well be Siberia. But the good news is …

Director Frank Capra’s filming a sequel to “The Scarlett Pimpernel," and the lead actor broke his leg. (Ronald Colman has multiple fractures! Yes!) Desperate to stay on schedule, Capra’s flying into Buffalo to check out the Hays’ matinee performance of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” George figures Colman’s bad break could be his big break. Now it’s time to double down on rehearsals. Then everything that could possibly go wrong does.

Predictable? No kidding.

This gag was old when Plautus made the Romans split their togas in 191 BC. Ancient or not, it can still be hilarious. (For proof, check out Christopher Guest’s 1996 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”) It’s a time-tested premise, but Ludwig fails to make the most of it. The results can be less than hilarious.

The frenzied first act dumps a load of exposition on your head. You learn about divorces and various affairs, George and Charlotte’s career arc, backstage politics, their daughter’s rejection of theater and more. It’s a lot of information, and not that funny.

After all that setup, the second act delivers the payoff, which is a disastrous performance of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” with Frank Capra supposedly watching. Thanks to various complications, George is blind drunk, and he thinks he’s playing the lead in “Cyrano de Bergerac.” He staggers on stage, dressed as Cyrano. With panache and flair, George sticks his big French nose in the genteel drawing room drama and falls into the orchestra pit.

Now that’s comedy! Finally.

Director Pam Wiley maintains a breakneck pace, and that’s the only way Ludwig’s overstuffed, slightly dated farce works.

The actors get the most out of their roles and sometimes go beyond what’s on the page. And then the backstage shenanigans unfold.

As George, Chris Caswell employs good acting to bring a bad actor to life. (In a classic Warner Brothers cartoon, George would’ve been labeled “Grade A Ham.”) Caswell delivers a standout performance; he’s laugh-out-loud funny. Insecure egomaniac that he is, George has knocked up a wide-eyed ingénue (Kiara Kincheloe). As a result, George’s wife, Charlotte (Lynne Doyle), is ready to trade him in for an oily, if reliable, lawyer (Peter Salefsky). George and Charlotte’s daughter (Cindy Schlotterback) is sick of the stage. She’s already traded in the actor she loves (Scott Ehrenpreis) for a geeky TV weatherman she doesn’t (Philip Troyer). Nobody understands anybody, and Charlotte’s hard-of hearing mother (Annie Gundersheimer) makes it worse by passing on her misheard, garbled messages.

Yes, you heard right. A gag at the expense of the hearing-impaired. Today, that doesn’t play so well. Ludwig also bashes the fine city of Buffalo. But it’s a farce from 1995, so let’s move on.

And speaking of farce …

Nothing says “farce” like plenty of doors ready to slam. Michael Newton-Brown’s sturdy set gets the job done. Jared E. Walker’s costumes fit the times, in a stylized, dreamy kind of way.

Bottom line?

This isn’t a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, folks. But when the playwright finally gets his act together, his play is very funny, especially for the theatrically inclined. There’s abundant fan service for theater nerds and lovers of old movie trivia.

If you actually know who Ronald Colman was, you’ll get a kick out of it.

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