By Ruth Ross
As a dramatic genre, farce is a delicate thing. Oh, it is loud, with lots of slamming doors and over-the-top characters and performances, but if the actors don’t hit their marks with precision or the comedic timing is a nanosecond off, the entire enterprise can collapse in a confusing—and decidedly unfunny—heap.
Luckily for us, director Tom Frascatore and the talented folks at the Chatham Community Players nail the genre in their recent production of Moon Over Buffalo by none other than the farce-meister par excellence, Ken Ludwig. Adding to our delight is that this is a play about the theater—one that reveals the back-biting pettiness and feet of clay exhibited some of the people we revere the most: celebrities!
In the summer of 1953, former Broadway stars George and Charlotte Hay have taken their run-down touring company on the road to Buffalo, New York, where they intend to produce Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives in repertory, all the while grumbling about missed Hollywood opportunities. With the news that noted Hollywood director Frank Capra is coming to hire the couple for his swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel epic, their fortunes seem to be looking up, but their marital and professional relationships are endangered by the news of George’s infidelity with the company’s ingénue. The entire Hay family—including scornful mother-in-law Ethel, determinedly practical daughter Rosalind and Rosalind’s ex-boyfriend/actor/company manager Paul (right, Tess Ammerman and Thom Boyer)—work overtime to get sloppy drunk George into his Cyrano hat and nose…or is it his Elyot Chase smoking jacket? Mistaken identities, foiled plot lines, pratfalls, slamming doors aplenty and backstage shenanigans ensue in this screwball comic farce and love letter to the theater and the larger-than-life personalities who inhabit the world of the theater. (Above: Stacey Petricha and David Romankow)
Tom Frascatore’s frenetic, frantic direction manages to corral and control the mayhem occurring onstage, without dampening the merriment. On Roy Pancirov and Bob Lukasik’s terrific set, decorated by artist Andrea Sickler and featuring five doors just waiting to be slammed, an octet of very talented actors perform in one the best of Chatham Player productions I’ve seen in years.
As the Hayses, David Romankow and Stacey Petricha really shine, from their very first appearance dueling across and around the stage to their final embrace. Romankow is perfect as the conceited has-been George, content to act even regionally, in love with his wife but not above basking in the adoration (and sexual attentions) of the blonde, buxom ingénue Eileen (played with appropriate blowsiness by a pouty Julie Anne Nolan). He portrays perhaps the best drunk (right) I’ve ever encountered, stumbling around the stage, broadly emoting while recalling lines by Shakespeare and falling over unconscious. He’s well matched by Petricha as Charlotte; ambitious, jealous, vindictive to the core, she more than he yearns for a film career. Her anxiety at watching it slip away is palpable and sympathetic. Frantically, she attempts to sober George up so he can go onstage, efforts that are undermined by a serious (and hilarious) mistake made by her deaf mother Ethel, played with a combination of delicious cluelessness and curmudgeonly irritation by Meryl Nadell (left, with Brendan Scullin as Howard).
Taking charge of the chaos is the couple’s practical daughter Rosalind, who has sought a career outside the theater and who has returned to introduce her television weatherman fiancé Howard to her parents. Tess Ammerman is all business and level-headedness as Roz, dragged back into a world she’s rejected and doing yeoman’s job to keep her parents from veering off the rails. Brendan Scullin is side-splitting as Howard, a literal bundle of nerves who can’t even speak his own name without stuttering, clearly a fish out of water in this world. His attempts to impress George go resoundingly and hysterically awry. Rounding out the stellar cast are Thom Boyer as Rosalind’s former beau Paul, now tasked with managing this repertory company and called into action to sub for an actor who has quit, and Lewis Decker, who provides a modicum of reason as the couple’s lawyer Richard, come to “rescue” Charlotte from this crazy life. (Below L-R: Petricha, Romankow, Decker, Scullin and Nolan)
Costumes by Christina Kirk and hair and makeup by Nicole Ribeiro aptly convey both the historical period and accoutrements of a stage production. Set decoration and props by Tish Lum add to the effect, as do Joe DeVico’s sound design and lighting by John Latona and James Peterson. Steve Ruskin is to be commended on his fight choreography, which encompasses much more than just the skillful duel that introduces the principals.
For many theatergoers, farce is an acquired taste. But I love it, so I approached the Chatham Playhouse this past stormy Saturday night with great anticipation. I am glad to say that my expectations were rewarded—in spades! So if you need a respite from contentious news, get on over to the Chatham Playhouse for a good laugh. It’s the perfect antidote to controversy and debate. (Right: David Romankow attempts to strangle Thom Boyer)
Moon Over Buffalo will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through March 11. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.