Review: ‘A Comedy of Tenors’ at Olney Theatre Center

Things are getting silly at the Olney Theatre Center these days. Very, very, silly. Very skillfully silly, in the production of Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors. A follow-on to Ludwig’s highly popular Lend Me a Tenor, the play imagines mistaken identities, faulty assumptions, seductions (successful or not), egos inflated and wounded, and emotions well over the top during the last frantic hours before a “three tenors”-style concert in Paris during the 1930s. Not to mention a very evocative piece of tongue.

John Treacy Egan as Tito and Emily Townley as Maria in Ken Ludwig's 'Comedy of Tenors' at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.
John Treacy Egan as Tito and Emily Townley as Maria in Ken Ludwig’s ‘A Comedy of Tenors’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.

In a posh hotel suite (the set is designed by Charlie Calvert), perpetually frazzled producer Saunders (Alan Wade) learns that one of the headliners has canceled, spiking his already stratospheric anxiety level and beginning a mad dash to find a replacement. Saunders puts his onetime assistant, and now rising tenor and expectant father, Max (Matthew Schleigh), on the case.

The top star of the concert, Tito (John Treacy Egan), he of large ego, large appetites, and now, as he contemplates increasing age, burgeoning insecurity, arrives with his passionate and mercurial wife Maria (Emily Townley). Meanwhile, Tito’s daughter Mimi (Allyson Boate) is in love with young tenor Carlo (Alan Naylor), whose youth and talent Tito finds particularly threatening.

Countless complications and emotional eruptions later, the concert hangs by a thread. Then, a potential savior appears, in the person of Beppo, an operatic bellhop who is a dead ringer for Tito, perhaps not surprising since he is also played by Egan. To complete the volatile mix, Racon (Patricia Hurley), a Russian former lover of Tito’s – think a vastly more sexually voracious Ninotchka – shows up displaying her one-track mind.

Director Jason King Jones creates a well-functioning comic machine propelled by the precisely timed entrances and exits through multiple doors essential to any good farce. A Comedy of Tenors is very much an ensemble piece, and Ludwig gives each of his characters moments to shine. Under Jones’ guidance, they do. The energy and enthusiasm of the entire cast deliver the laughs, and the moments of sweetness, which make the play so appealing to an audience.

Egan’s Tito/Beppo is the centerpiece, however. Tito and Beppo seem indistinguishable to the play’s other characters, who frequently confuse them for each other, but Egan, a gifted comic actor, does a fine job of distinguishing them for the audience. This is the case, first, in their speaking voices. Tito – tenor though he is – has the speaking voice of a baritone, while Beppo speaks in a higher range. But the differences are particularly well drawn in the two characters’ physicality: they hold their heads differently, there are small but noticeable differences in which the way they move their bodies. Each has his own subtly different gestural vocabulary. It’s fair to say that Egan’s performance is something of a master class in the art of nuanced physical acting. His dialogue with the aforementioned piece of (beef) tongue was a comic highlight.

John Treacy Egan as Beppo in Ken Ludwig's 'Comedy of Tenors' at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.
John Treacy Egan as Beppo in Ken Ludwig’s ‘Comedy of Tenors’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Switching rapidly between Tito and Beppo, Egan undergoes numerous, often rapid, costume changes, and Seth M. Gilbert’s costume design accommodates the need for speed as well as distinction. He also comes up with some very sexy garb for Racon and Maria – Maria’s black boudoir outfit is particularly enticing – as the erotic temperature of the show rises in the second act.

The emotional tones of plays under the general heading of “farce” can vary greatly. A farce can be emotionally tepid, with only the mechanism of the plot to engage the audience, as in the dreary pieces of Ray Cooney. A farce can be almost terrifying, as when Michael Frayn’s brilliant Noises Off descends from disorder to ultimate chaos. While no less hilarious, A Comedy of Tenors is filled with emotionally engaging characters, genuine love can flourish amidst the shenanigans, and its world is one in which order can finally be restored. In Olney’s production, it is not only extremely funny, but rather comforting.

Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes, including one intermission.

A Comedy of Tenors is playing at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Rd, Olney, MD, through May 12.  For tickets, call (301) 924-3400 or go online.

Sonya Dowhaluk, Lighting Designer; Justin Schmitz, Sound Designer; Casey Kaleba, Fight Choreographer; Brianne Taylor, Dialect Coach; LaShawn Melton, Wig Designer; Cat Wallis, Production Stage Manager.