“Moon Over Buffalo” / The Theater Barn
IF, AT THE THEATER BARN, you don’t already know you are about to see a farce, set designer Abe Phelps with his five brown doors immediately spills the beans. He doesn’t even reach for beauty this time because (I suspect) he knows the set is pure function as belly-laugh factory. On opening night of the 2015 season the Barn jumped, rocked and jiggled with belly laughs.
The trick with “Moon Over Buffalo” and farce in general is to pour hot air into a silliness balloon and stretch it to super-thinness without ever allowing it to pop and shrivel. Playwright Ken Ludwig does it, not with great originality, but skillfully. He exploits some old-favorite situations (deafness, drunkenness, mistaken identity, on-stage confusion), adds funny line after funny line, and blows hard.
Although the year of the action is supposed to be 1953, the feel of the whole thing is more like 1940s movietime. There is much talk of Ronald Colman, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see “Cuddles” emerge from one of the five doors. (Pity you don’t remember “Cuddles.”) In this production, at the center of the mayhem is a middle-aged acting couple modeled on the Lunts. They are nicely played by Mary Nichols as Charlotte and Phil Rice as George. (On Broadway, those characters were realized by Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco, and a Lynn Redgrave/Robert Goulet team replaced them for a vacation run.)
Charlotte and George have reason to believe that they have a shot at major stardom in a Frank Capra movie, and Frank is arriving for their matinee–but which play should they do, “Private Lives” or “Cyrano de Bergerac”? The tying up of plot threads is completely unbelievable, but the undoing and doing of knots is mostly hilarious.
The Barn program tells us that Rice, who also directed, stepped into the big role after the actor originally cast became ill. That seems like too much of a load for one human being, and it may account for the fact Rice’s director-half has allowed Noah Mefford (as Paul, a young hunk) to blow a bit too much hot air. (His scenes always pop and shrivel.) However, Mefford looks good as romantic interest opposite the excellent Alyssa H. Chase, who totally gets the farce thing in addition to looking lovely. Clara Childress is fine in a thankless role; and three other supporting players, Joan Coombs as the hearing-impaired grandma/wardrobe mistress, Sky Vogel as the long-suffering I’ll-take-you-away-from-all-this suitor of Charlotte, and my personal favorite, Caleb John Cushing as the hapless TV weatherman Howard, are spectacular.
There is something very pleasantly “country” about an evening at the Theater Barn. When you go there you feel as if you have been welcomed into a big warm, local family called audience. Partly it may be the folksy Allen Phelps who, in addition to designing lights, chats easily with the audience before the show and at intermission (usually I abhor curtain speeches, but Allen….); and, at the box office, it’s Joan Phelps, who seems to know almost everybody’s name.
Three musicals, “The Fantasticks, “Evita” and “John and Jen” are coming up, along with another comedy and the Barn’s traditional Agatha Christie. “Moon Over Buffalo” runs through Sunday, July 5. www.thetheaterbarn.org or 518 794-8989.