MOON OVER BUFFALO (People’s Light): A few doors short of a farce

MOON OVER BUFFALO at People's Light & Theatre Company
MOON OVER BUFFALO at People’s Light & Theatre Company

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;

2 Replies to “MOON OVER BUFFALO (People’s Light): A few doors short of a farce”
  1. Amusing that just underneath this scathing review that makes such a broad generalization about David Ingram and comedy is a Phindie rave review of a previous farce at People’s Light with guess who in the cast – David Ingram. One aspect of the erosion of arts criticism is the failure to provide (easily) researched context for the work being evaluated. It’s absolutely fine to perceive a work as failing under its own terms and reference points, but over-reach generalizations undermine a critic’s credibility. It makes the writing broad, inconsistent, and undercooked, which, ironically, is one of the writer’s criticisms of this production.

    1. You have the right to feel however you like about my review, but I want to address a couple points I find troubling. First, you’re comparing my review of this production to a three-year-old review of a different play, by a different author, written by a different critic. What makes you think I would have come to the same conclusions as Deb Miller, or that one writer’s opinion of a production from three years ago has anything to do with my opinion of what’s happening on stage right now? It’s a false equivalence. Now, the fact that the current production has received both positive and negative reviews should be enough to tell you that multiple different people can have multiple different reactions to the same work. (If you read my review, I’m sure you also read Jim Rutter’s.)

      Your comment about my review lacking “easily researched context” strikes me as an ad hominem attack meant to undercut critical credibility in general, and to suggest that I specifically don’t have the body of knowledge required to do my job (further evidenced by your comments about my critical “overreach”). Of course, “researched context” here seems to mean that I should have read Deb Miller’s review of a totally separate production before I wrote my review of this production. And “overreach” is that I didn’t find a certain actor well-suited to the material (or the genre) when others did. If that’s the case, then we’re not actually talking about research or criticism; we’re talking about PR.

      My job as a critic, first and foremost, is to evaluate the work in front of me. The context I bring to my writing is the experience and knowledge I’ve gained from filing more than five-hundred reviews in my career. So the fact that other people have liked past productions at People’s Light, or that David Ingram was in them, has no bearing on my opinion of this particular production or this particular performance. If it did, then I really wouldn’t be doing my job.

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