note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
George Hay…..Josh Wingate
Charlotte Hay…..Evelyn Moffett
Several years ago, Ken Ludwig's MOON OVER BUFFALO caused a bit of a stir in our community, for not only did Carol Burnett come to town but Mr. Ludwig's comedy premiered in Boston before heading for Broadway, conjuring up the old days when plays arrived in New York via try-outs in Boston/Philadelphia/New Haven. MOON OVER BUFFALO soon folded on Broadway, and the Prodigal Play has now limped back to us. It's a skeleton of a show and The North Quincy Alumni Theatre gamely tries to pad it with flesh – but, oh, how those bones rattle!
The year is 1953 – the dawn of the television era – and BUFFALO takes place off- and onstage at the Erlanger Theatre, Buffalo, New York, which houses the second-rate troupe of George and Charlotte Hay, husband and wife. The Hays are that familiar staple: the battling theatre-couple, alternately charming and childish, hammy and artistic, in love with the spotlight as well as with each other; you know – ACTORS. The Hays are performing CYRANO DE BERGERAC in repertory with PRIVATE LIVES, while clinging to their dream of being the next Lunt and Fontanne – but in Hollywood, not Broadway – and NEVER on television (my, how times have changed!). Opportunity knocks, uh, rings with a phone call: film director Frank Capra is flying to Buffalo to catch today's matinee with an eye on George as a possible replacement for an indisposed Ronald Colman. Pandemonium follows: not only has Charlotte just learned that Eileen (the company's ingenue) is pregnant with George's child (balloon caption: "I'm leaving you, darling") but George has suddenly gone off on a bender and must be found and sobered up before Mr. Capra arrives. Rounding out the cast are daughter Rosalind (retired from the stage – but not for long), Howard (a TV weatherman mistaken for Mr. Capra, and Rosalind's fiancé – but not for long), Paul (an actor in the company and Rosalind's EX-financé – but not for long), Charlotte's mother Ethel (whose hard-of-hearing keeps her out of the loop – but not for long), and Richard (the family lawyer who takes Charlotte away from it all – but not for long). Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones….
I haven't seen or read Mr. Ludwig's LEND ME A TENOR, which paid homage to the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s, but it ran on Broadway a bit longer than MOON OVER BUFFALO, and I assume because it's a bit better than its successor, for BUFFALO, frankly, had me, well, buffalo'd. Mr. Ludwig has a knack for dialogue that cracks wise, but his play is a puffed up sketch weighted down with the trappings of farce – crazy characters, mistaken identities, quick exits and slamming doors (when the plot sags – and often – Mr. Ludwig cries, "Let's run around some more!" And why is BUFFALO set in 1953? Screwball comedy flourished in the 1930s and died out in the flames of WWII – and Frank Capra was in decline, career-wise.). I kept shaking my head at how mechanical BUFFALO is – from its entrances and exits to its seemingly endless "Where's George?" chase scenes to its predicable surprises and neatly tied-up ending. This is not to fault the Alumni's director and cast too, too much – their efforts are perfectly respectable, i.e. the audience laughed in the right places. But the cold, hard fact is an actor – no matter how competent – is as good as the script he/she is in and, with two exceptions, much of BUFFALO's intended fun came off as forced and as desperate as the Hays themselves.
The two exceptions are Amy Shea as Rosalind and Daniel Minkle as Paul. I've seen them both before – as a radiant Emily in Theatre at Old South's OUR TOWN and as a sly but charming Edmund the Bastard in Ubiquity Theatre's KING LEAR -– and I included them in my "Best of 2001" summary for this website. It was good to see them again. It took me awhile before I recognized Ms. Shea – her glow had been dimmed down to Nice; still, she was a very nice Nice and looked quite stylish in her PRIVATE LIVES evening gown – a far cry from Emily's small-town dresses. Mr. Minkle, who could become a leading Shakespearean should Dame Fortune smile on him, scaled himself down to become the goofy, modern-day Paul, and he subtly played against the others' hysteria.
Farce – if BUFFALO can be considered one – is a tricky genre to pull off, and the director needs to sharpen his/her eyes and ears to make it work. In terms of the ear, he/she must keep the actors in check and see that they don't "floor it" vocal-wise and simply end up shouting (Mr. Minkle alone sings to an unheard score – his timing and inflections are impeccable). In terms of the eye, the slamming doors and chases should be viewed as crazy ballets, which requires actors who can move well, tumble, take a spill without getting hurt, and show invention and variety in their movements. Right now, Alumni's production is a blind man's fire drill – and Frank Moffet's set design only hinders the actors. Take the dressing room door, for example: it is set downstage, extreme right, facing the audience. An actor charging towards said door must suddenly hit the brakes to avoid slamming into the proscenium wall, turn on a dime to grab the knob with his/her left hand (the whiplash effect could still slam him/her against said wall), tear the door open and propel him/herself through, closing the door behind him/her – and not collapse the set in doing so. Two other exits are set at right angles, one level up, with their tiny stairs facing the audience – thus, the actors charge up those stairs from 6:00, aiming for 12:00; they suddenly brake, turn on another dime, and exit at 9:00 or 3:00. And there seems to be little backstage area behind the set, for when the actors do exit, they brake yet again before disappearing (to avoid pitching head-first into darkness and kissing yet another a wall?). VROOOM – SCREECH! – VROOOM – SCREECH! Considering the agility, grace and silence these actors must possess to maneuver themselves around backstage, it's a pity so little of it spills forth in front of the audience.
Too bad this BUFFALO will close soon; I would have been curious to come back, say, a month from now, once the cast had settled in and started to fly with it.
And what does the moon have to do with Buffalo, anyway?