Now in production at People’s Light, Ken Ludwig’s Moon over Buffalo, directed by Pete Pryor, contains all the expected elements of a farce: there’s mistaken identity; insult humor; impassioned break-ups and make-ups; parodies of the classics; running jokes; physical comedy with over-the-top characters who scream, fight, ugly cry, and mug, get drunk, get angry, and get confused; and door slamming – lots of door slamming. The problem is, there’s no credible logic underlying Ludwig’s wackiness and chaos (the willingness to overlook absolutely anything for one’s art is too big a stretch, even for a farce), his characters are largely unlikeable and unprincipled (which makes it hard to care about them or to root for them), and the general effect is that of trying too hard to be funny, when much of the intended mid-century-style humor misses the mark for a current audience. Ok, so that’s more than one problem.
Set in 1953, in the green room of a theater in Buffalo, the madcap narrative revolves around the inter-relationships of the dysfunctional Hay family and the assorted paramours of its members, on tour with their struggling company doing Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives in repertory. Just as infidelity threatens the long-time marriage of its fading stars George and Charlotte Hay (portrayed by David Ingram and Mary Elizabeth Scallen), in an era when the popularity of live theater was being supplanted by TV and the movies, they have the opportunity to revive their waning careers with a matinee performance attended by Hollywood Director Frank Capra, who might cast them in his current film.
In spite of everything going haywire with the show, a pregnancy resulting from George’s adultery with Eileen (Tabitha Allen), and the Hays’ daughter Rosalind (Julianna Zinkel) and her current nerdy fiancé Howard (Christopher Patrick Mullen) also switching interwoven partners (Kevin Bergen plays Paul, Rosalind’s ex), they all end up happy, resolve to stick together, and recapture their love through their mutual devotion to acting. From a post-feminist perspective, the resolution of the story, with the wife accepting and covering for her husband’s “one mistake” (it’s a doozy of a mistake) and her husband lauding their shared love of life in the theater to excuse his inconstancy and the whole troupe’s duplicitous behavior, seems outdated, illogical, and unsatisfying in 2017, or even in 1995, when the play was written. Even if it could, and does, still happen, it’s just not funny – unless you’re a proponent of Tammy Wynette’s call to “Stand by Your Man.”
The pacing of Act I is slow, as the old-fashioned characters are introduced, the situations begin to develop, and the recurrent jokes are first presented. The speed picks up in Act II, as the buffoonery reaches a crescendo with two of the production’s most hilarious scenes – George’s drunkenness, played to the hilt by Ingram; and the disastrous matinee of Private Lives, for which the increasingly intoxicated George eventually turns up as Cyrano and the others in the cast try desperately to save the show (Marcia Saunders delivers one of the script’s funniest lines as his mother-in-law Ethel, who arrives on stage unexpectedly in full anachronistic costume). Peter DeLaurier is another standout as the lawyer Richard, who is enamored with Charlotte, striking a sophisticated demeanor and providing understated laughs with each of his brief appearances. The ensemble’s extended door-slamming sequence in Act II is timed to perfection, though an errant gunshot that knocks a lighting fixture off the wall was out of synch in the performance I attended, with the lamp falling before the sound of the weapon firing, and the execution of the fight sequences (choreographed by Samantha Reading) looked stilted.
Yoshinori Tanokura’s set captures the look of backstage in an old theater and provides the necessarily sturdy portals for repeated enthusiastic slamming, then fluidly shifts to the upscale French balcony of the Private Lives segment. Marla J. Jurglanis evokes both the fashions of the Fifties and the period-style costumes in the plays performed by the characters, including Cyrano’s oft-ripped breeches (though the lavishness of the scenic design and wardrobe contradicts the financial hardships of the fictional touring company, which can’t afford to pay its actors). John Hoey creates beautiful lighting for the opening scene from Cyrano, silhouetted in backlighting behind a scrim, and for Charlotte’s fantasy at the end of the first act, in which she imagines she’s a huge Hollywood star, with Sound Designer Christopher Colucci providing the applause from her imagined audience of adoring fans.
Much of the material in Moon over Buffalo seems outdated and clichéd, and not up to the quality of the talented cast, director, and designers at People’s Light. But if you’re a fan of the Fifties, you might enjoy the exaggerated retro style of the show and the throwback characters and ending that relate to an earlier time of comedy and society.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.