Stage Rites

Plays about the theater have enjoyed a healthy success for at least 2,500 years, ever since Greek dramas were followed on the day's bill of fare by comedies that made fun of the serious action preceding them. Somehow, audiences never tire of listening to the lamentations of people paid to entertain others, and backstage intrigue has never been more of a source of enjoyment in popular culture than it is today.

With that in mind, it's hard to imagine a situation more ripe for farcical treatment than this: a five-member theater troupe propped up by two aging hacks and alternately playing Noel Coward's Private Lives and Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac in 1953 Buffalo, New York ("like Scranton, without the charm"). And as if Charlotte Hay (Billie McBride) and her husband, George (Paul Borrillo), don't have enough trouble holding together their ragtag theater company, their backstage lives are due for a merciless unraveling in Ken Ludwig's quick-paced Broadway hit Moon Over Buffalo.

The Arvada Center's production, directed by Bev Newcomb-Madden, makes for an enjoyable evening, though the first act's ponderous pacing prompted one playgoer to remark that "the second part was twice as funny as the first." Such, however, is the nature of farce itself, where first-act houses of cards are commonly blown to every corner of the Earth and back by the end of the evening.

The Arvada presentation is anchored by strong performances from Erik Tieze and Kate Richardson as company manager Paul and his sweetheart, Rosalind, who also happens to be Charlotte and George's daughter. The romance of the star-crossed (her parents, not the gods) couple is broken off by Rosalind's need to escape her parents' zany world, and the play finds its energy as the first act comes to a close: Paul leaps and bounds across the stage with the news that Frank Capra is coming to see the company perform in order to find replacements for his latest film project.

But before Paul can inform the company's leading lady of her chance to supplant Greer Garson in Hollywood, Eileen (Christen Simon) arrives with the news that George has made her, the ingenue of the company, pregnant. In high dudgeon, Charlotte walks out on her husband, only to quickly double back when she senses her own big break (made possible by Ronald Colman having broken both his legs, finishing his and Garson's involvement with the Capra picture). Later, Charlotte's tryst with the couple's lawyer, Richard (Paul Page), will be revealed, and, just for the sake of utter confusion, Howard (Erik Sandvold) will enter the drama in an attempt to firm up his plans to marry Rosalind, still in a state of confusion over her feelings for Paul. Instead, Howard is mistaken for Capra himself.

By the time the troubled coterie has made its way on stage for its collective audition, things are in such a state that George is costumed for the wrong play, Eileen has refused to perform because of her emotional condition (Rosalind gets drafted into duty), and a pot of coffee has been spiked with whiskey by a hard-of-hearing matron, thwarting George's attempt to sober up.

The second act reaps the comic rewards sown in the first, primarily because Tieze and Richardson create characters who remain believable despite the outlandish circumstances in which they find themselves. When she takes on the role of Sibyl in the Coward piece, Richardson is a perfect concoction of someone operating at three distinct levels: a woman who must salvage her parents' careers and her own dignity as a performer, along with her fledgling romantic exploits. As she lightly dances across the stage in breathy horror at having possibly failed at all three, the audience responds with unbridled laughter.

Tieze has perhaps the most difficult task in the play--playing straight man to a menagerie of over-the-top characters. He also must advance the action by revealing key elements of plot while simultaneously pursuing his true love. His timing and winning stage personality are responsible for much of the production's success.

McBride's deep-voiced mommie dearest is often charming, though where we should see three dimensions, two often appear instead. Beset with some of the script's more challenging lines--most of them dripping with show business cattiness--McBride delivers her insults with such an edge that she occasionally earns gasps from the audience instead of good-natured laughter. Eventually, though, we are drawn to her, as we are to Borrillo's silver-tongued ham.

Throughout, Ludwig makes an argument for the sustenance of theater in the face of electronic entertainment--even in the early Fifties, television poses a serious, if infantile, threat. But nothing sums up the play's message as does a line from the first act: "The theater is all we've got--without it, we'd all be Republicans!"

Not to mention habitual television viewers.


Moon Over Buffalo, through September 28 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 431-3939.

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Jim Lillie