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Theater Review: Moon Over Buffalo

Artists love to gaze at their navels. Authors often pen novels with writers as key characters. Painters usually daub a self-portrait (or 10) during their careers. And theater folk? Since the days of traveling medieval troupes, performers have reveled in staging works that peek behind the curtains of their own profession. It's a veritable actor's call to arms: Let's put on a show about putting on a show!

Lawyer-turned-playwright Ken Ludwig has made a career out of writing period backstage comedies and musicals. Moon Over Buffalo, from 1995, is a farce about the travails of a washed-up team of low-rent Lunts, struggling to survive in the theater as the age of television dawns. This is comedic corn for sure, but how palatable it is on stage depends entirely on how it is prepared and served. The results can be as different as a garden-ripened ear of Supersweet and a dusty bottle of expired Karo syrup: sunny, fresh and eminently delectable, or pale, stale and toothache-generating.

From the scrawny seeds of Ludwig's script, Northern Stage has raised a fetching crop of high-fructose fun. Director Catherine Doherty made Moon move by embracing its goofiness while keeping the pace swift and crisp. Her cast was brilliant, both as individuals and as an ensemble. Each role was an affectionately drawn caricature that emphasized the character's individuality and underlying humanity. Despite the over-the-top nature of some scenes, the actors didn't upstage one another. They allowed quiet asides to pack as much punch as drunken rants.

It was farce with finesse from a polished cast of pros. Their eagerness and energy helped audience members devour the utter silliness of the plot, based on mistaken identity and improbable coincidence. The action stayed absorbing even when the twists were foreshadowed with the thundering subtlety of Niagara Falls, and disbelief had to be suspended like the Rainbow Bridge.

The story takes place on one summer day in 1953, at a theater in Buffalo. Actors George and Charlotte Hay comprise a middle-aged couple relegated to touring the hinterlands with their small company doing "rep" - presenting greatest hits such as Cyrano and Private Lives in rotation. Audiences are waning. "It's television that's killing us," says George. "Entertainment by the yard."

The Hays' dreams of greater fame, on Broadway or in Hollywood, lie behind them. George is particularly bitter about losing a role to Ronald Colman in Frank Capra's film The Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Charlotte's selectively deaf mother Ethel still travels with the company. But daughter Rosalind has forsworn acting for advertising, and forsaken her thespian boyfriend Paul for TV weatherman fiancé Howard.

Financial trouble looms. But the really bad news is that a brief, dangerous liaison between George and ingénue Eileen means the company's Juliet will soon be "waddling like a duck." A pregnant duck. George knows that when Charlotte finds out, his goose is cooked.

The intrigue sends the characters chasing one another through the backstage corridors like chickens. Meanwhile, though, shocking good news arrives. Ronald Colman has taken a tragic tumble on the Pimpernel set, breaking both legs, and co-star Greer Garson has stormed off. Celebrated director Capra is coming to Buffalo to catch the matinee, hoping to cast the Hays as his emergency replacements.

Too bad George is AWOL, drowning his sorrows on a drunken bender through the bars of Buffalo. Can his family track him down and sober him up in time to impress Capra? Complications mount as curtain time draws nigh. Each character finds his career and happiness in jeopardy. Can the loose ends tie themselves neatly in a bow by the final bows? Ludwig saves the silliest, and sweetest, surprises for last.

In the stellar ensemble, Michael E. Lopez shone brightly as George. He was passionate and convincing, whether taking a pratfall, bemoaning his fallen state, or working the long-married couple's complex chemistry. Lopez tackled every scene with relish. His drunken George was exuberantly entertaining - at one point he appeared complete with Cyrano's prosthetic proboscis jutting like a penis from the side of his forehead.

Scott Cote's performance as Howard was luminescent. Glibly confident as a weatherman, Howard finds himself starstruck by his fiancée's famous parents. Cote channeled early Nathan Lane - the chubby-cheeked, wide-eyed innocent drawn unwittingly into a maelstrom. Whether he was ingratiating, insecure, jumpy or even unctuous, Cote made every aspect of Howard's hapless character endearing.

Carolyn Gordon was a deadpan delight as George's mother-in-law and arch-nemesis Ethel, whose deafness generates several key mishaps. Ethel's disdain for her son-in-law is as profound as her hearing loss. "The man is a walking ham," she clucks. "They should stick cloves in him and serve him with pineapple." Gordon brought a wry calm to Ethel's grumpy self-assurance. While others lose their cool, she remains unflustered - and sardonic - at the center of the storm.

As drama queen Charlotte, Cary Barker conjured the controlled fragility of a woman unable to age gracefully. She maintained a broad stage smile and proud physical carriage, even when masking befuddlement or outrage. Particularly funny were the scenes in which she cheerfully used maternal guilt to tweak her pert, put-together daughter Rosalind, who was played with sparkle and aplomb by Kathryn Merry. "Twelve pounds, 14 ounces," Charlotte reminds her, referring to Rosalind's joyous birth. "They needed a forklift!"

The versatile Chris Vaughn made the minor role of Richard a small gem. With simple strokes, such as clipped speech and a constricted gait, he turned the rich lawyer into a nebbishy, cuticle-biting softie. The actors playing Paul and Eileen sketched charming, 1950s archetypes: Thomas Kyle Miller, the black-clad master thespian-in-training, and Laura Schwenninger, the wholesome, milk-fed ingénue in pedal pushers.

Ken Goldstein's effective scenic design featured flexible sets, snappy period detail and plenty of room for the madcap mayhem to unfold. Numerous doors allowed for antic chases and near misses, especially in the wild search for George. The backstage set transformed briefly into the stage for the Hays' plays, and French cannons and hotel balconies rolled smoothly into place.

Slightly faded hues of seafoam green, yellow and golden brown gave a warm, gently worn cast to the surroundings. Against this muted background, costume designer Rachel Kurland clothed the women smartly in bright reds and pinks. David M. Upton lit the expansive set effectively. The lights enhanced the colorful theatricality of the Hays' amusingly surreal world and nudged along the pace of the action.

If you're looking for a meaty evening of theater, you may want to skip this all-carb comedy. Mamet, Miller, Shepard or Shakespeare this is not. But most of us enjoy a good sugar rush now and then, and this production of Moon Over Buffalo satisfies like a dozen Krispy Kremes. It's a guilty glucose high. Luckily, the hearty grinning and guffawing may actually burn a few calories, and they won't get you in trouble with the doctor at your next check-up.

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