A simple question pulsed through my mind as I endured MOON OVER BUFFALO, Ken Ludwig’s dated and terminally unfunny attempt at a backstage farce: Why?
Why has the venerable People’s Light & Theatre Company chosen to exhume this largely forgotten play from its well-deserved obscurity? Why has Pete Pryor directed this production with lethal indifference? Why have the two leading roles been cast with earnest and hardworking performers, when they cry out for stars? And why does nearly every member of the seven-person cast tend to push way too hard, when farce (even bad farce) should look and feel as easy as breathing?
MOON OVER BUFFALO is, in many ways, a valentine to life in the theater; this theme surely appeals to the troupe at People’s Light (six of the seven cast members, along with director Pryor, are members of the theater’s resident company.) But most of the characters spend the play trying to escape its grasp. Charlotte and George Hay, the married pair of never-weres at its center, have entered their dotage with dreams of Hollywood stardom still unfulfilled; they cling to the hope of being discovered by Frank Capra, who’s promised to catch the Buffalo stand of their tour. If Capra casts them in his latest epic (a dreary-sounding adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernal), they could become overnight sensations at fifty-plus. Rosalind, their daughter and former co-star, has renounced the stage for a life of quiet domesticity with her weatherman fiancé; and Richard, the couple’s lawyer, has designs to turn Charlotte into his own doting hausfrau. Of course, nothing breaks quite as expected (this is farce, after all), and the play’s two hours continually reinforce how the characters need the theater as much as the theater needs them.
As Charlotte and George, Mary Elizabeth Scallen and David Ingram do not possess the outsized personalities and comedic charms needed to sell jokes well past their prime. These are competent, professional actors, but neither can make some of the more thinly drawn elements of the script sing. These parts scream out for star quality—by which I don’t mean fame, but rather the ability of a performer to hold the audience in their hands with the merest wink. Scallen and Ingram are simply too cerebral. Ingram, specifically, treats the material with a level of reverence that actually has a counterintuitive effect. When his George shows up soused prior to a matinee, I felt like I was watching Hickey finally arrive at Harry Hope’s, not a washed-up hambone in his cups. I bet Ingram would slay in The Iceman Cometh, but he should leave broad comedy to someone else.
In the ensemble, only veterans Peter DeLaurier (as Richard) and Marcia Saunders (as Ethel, Charlotte’s batty, stone-deaf mother) show a true deftness for finding the funny. (In Saunders’ case, this is particularly admirable; Ludwig saddles Ethel with some of the most obvious and cringeworthy jokes.) Julianna Zinkel feels far too flighty as the supposedly grounded Rosalind, and Christopher Patrick Mullen resembles Rick Moranis on acid as her fidgety fiancé. Kevin Bergen doesn’t bring much of anything to the table as Paul, the company’s stage manager and Rosalind’s former flame. Tabitha Allen caterwauls her way through Eileen, the company’s ingénue.
The large cast frequently feel as if they’re performing in different plays, and this is where Pryor drops the ball most as a director. Farce requires continuity and a seamless style, but the cast careen through Yoshinori Tanokura’s well-appointed set with a surprising amount of aimlessness. These characters, who are all interconnected, sometimes regard each other with a level of casual distance that suggest they’ve just met. Some moments pay off more than others—the spectacle of a botched performance in Act Two wrings genuine laughs—but you’re frequently left asking why you should care about the foibles of this hapless crew.
It’s hard to believe this material amounted to much even when it was new, twenty-two years ago. And some of the jokes are truly indefensible; I’m thinking especially of the half-dozen or so homophobic set-ups that feel like they came out of the gay-panic fifties, not 1995. The backstage farce, from Twentieth Century to Noises Off, is practically its own genre, and MOON OVER BUFFALO represents its nadir. So why on earth is it taking up space on one of the region’s best stages?
[People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA]; July 19-August 13, 2017; peopleslight.org