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Nothing but The Troupe

Moon Over Buffalo
Nose in the Air: Cyrano de Bergerac pays a surprise visit to the cast of 'Private Lives' in Ken Ludwig's farce about a traveling theater troupe, 'Moon Over Buffalo.'

A beleaguered stage company rises to the occasion in 'Moon Over Buffalo'

By Heather Zimmerman

THEATREWORKS MAY have opted out of a holiday show this year, but with Moon Over Buffalo, a farce by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor), the company offers some lighthearted laughs as essential to the season as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The play is set in 1953. Television's popularity is on the rise, and that's bad news for an already struggling theater company; it soon becomes apparent, however, that I Love Lucy is the least of the group's problems. Led by has-been B-movie stars George and Charlotte Hay (Richard Elmore and Judy Jean Berns), the troupe has been trotting out Noël Coward's Private Lives and an "abridged" version of Cyrano de Bergerac in repertory on the road with the grudging assistance of Charlotte's half-deaf, sarcastic mother, Ethel (Pat Parker, who plays the eccentric old battle-ax with entertaining relish).

While the Hays' troupe is playing in Buffalo, Charlotte and George's daughter, Rosalind (Linda Jones), arrives with Howard (Ted McClellan), her nerdy new fiancé, only to find that her ex-boyfriend, Paul (Jackson Davis), is still the company's stage manager. It's also discovered that George has gotten buxom ingénue Eileen (Jessa Brie Berkner) pregnant. (Eileen, in a great touch by costumer Ardith Ann Gray, is made to look like a '50s Barbie, and Berkner plays her, to great comic advantage, as a fluffy but slightly malevolent doll.)

When Charlotte learns of her husband's indiscretions, she plans to leave town with the troupe's wealthy lawyer, Richard (Kevin Blackton), whose relatively sane mannerisms and witty lines lend some balance to his clients' somewhat maniacal antics--it's a shame we don't get to see more of him. Of course, just when it looks as if the family is falling apart, word comes that director Frank Capra might be in the audience, scouting out George and possibly Charlotte for his new movie.

If Capra's sudden materialization sounds a bit deus ex machina, it is, and this '50s-era comedy is doubly outrageous, not only in its fealty to farce but also in its resemblance to a TV show. The acting is "big," and you can often see the gags and the chases coming from a mile away, but the cast has the talents to pull off such familiar visual jokes and make them funny all over again.

Jules Aaron's sitcom-style direction--although it becomes grating at times, usually in the exposition-laden first act--more often than not pays off, particularly in a well-staged and entertaining second-act fiasco that arises when a roaring drunk George takes to the stage to "impress" Capra and finds that he's performing a different play than his fellow cast members.

Although it does at times seem slightly incongruous that Moon Over Buffalo is so much like the TV shows whose ascent to popularity the characters bemoan for killing audiences' affection for the theater, would that the average sitcom could handle farce as deftly as this production does.

Moon Over Buffalo plays Tuesdays at 7:30pm (through Dec. 23); Wednesday-Thursday at 8pm (through Dec. 18); Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 7pm (through Dec. 28), plus Saturday (Dec. 20) at 2pm and Sunday (Jan. 4) at 2pm at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. Tickets are $23-$31. (650/903-6000).

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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