Backstage Passe

When he wrote Moon Over Buffalo, Ken Ludwig must have been counting on an audience that hadn't seen the dozen or so funnier plays and movies that have been hung on similar show-biz hooks. And Phoenix Theatre seems to be hoping its ticketholders won't be distracted by the shuddering sense of deja vu they're bound to experience while watching this quaint comedy currently pratfalling its way across the company's main stage. Or maybe it's hoping that people will come to watch the show's dependable cast members do what they do best--even though we've all seen them do it in other, funnier shows.

Buffalo is a fast-paced, occasionally funny farce about plays and players that marked Carol Burnett's return to Broadway in 1995 after a 30-year absence. Despite Burnett's star power, the show wasn't particularly well-received in New York, and it closed in the red within the year. A new documentary film by D.A. Pennebaker, Moon Over Broadway, now playing around the country (not in Phoenix) explores that production's many shortcomings. Moon Over Buffalo isn't a bad play, just a forgettable one; it's cute rather than completely entertaining, the sort of goofy sketch comedy one might find at a small community theater--or on a rerun of The Carol Burnett Show.

Buffalo's backstage buffoonery is set in the 1950s and concerns Charlotte and George Hay (Robyn Ferracane and John Sankovich), a bargain-basement Lunt and Fontane who are stranded in the purgatory of repertory theater while their peers are making movies in Hollywood. The story is a steamer trunk full of the usual mistaken identities and erroneous romances, and is peopled by the sort of outrageous folks one never meets outside of a television sitcom. There isn't an ounce of flab on Ludwig's slim story line, nor is there a single pratfall or double-take we haven't seen before.

While there are no surprises in Moon Over Buffalo, Ludwig does manage to wring a couple of yuks from the usual hoo-ha. You know that when the actors gather backstage to pray for the errant George, no one will know a single prayer; or that the coffee meant to sober up the drunk actor will be laced with lots of bourbon. But Ludwig tosses out a couple of gags that, while a little long in the tooth, are at least well-placed and, in the case of this production, well-acted by a bunch of pros. Aside from guessing which prank originated in what other play or movie, the real fun here is in watching these actors hamming it up like there's no tomorrow.

The doors of Gro Johre's tremendous set get more of a workout than the thespians, all of whom have played these parts before. Robyn Ferracane can probably play Charlotte Hay in her sleep, but it's nice to see that she hasn't misplaced her comic timing during a recent sabbatical from the stage. And if nothing else, this quaint comedy provides a pleasant excuse for John Sankovich to run around in tights and flail his arms for a while. As George, Sankovich is equal parts John and Ethel Barrymore, a prissy prima donna who rolls his elbows and stretches his syllables and gets to play the entire second act as if he were drunk. It's a nice turn, though no great stretch for this talented comic actor; I've seen him pull as many faces during a magazine interview as he does here. While both of these veteran players are fun to watch, it's Peggy Lord Chilton who turns in the one truly hilarious performance. Her demented, grouchy grandma slouches around the stage, braying angry comments about the idiots she's trapped here with and cutting through the occasionally labored comedy around her with vigorous bits of physical humor. Director Gary Griffin is wise to let Chilton overplay a little; her performance could easily be swallowed up by the antics of Ferracane and Sankovich.

If you came across this artless comedy while channel-surfing, you might pause only long enough to absorb a couple of punch lines. But getting dressed and leaving the house (not to mention paying cold, hard cash) for this knockabout nonsense is another matter. There's nothing wrong with either the play or its production, but there's nothing new here, either. I ran into a neighbor at intermission who swore he'd seen a better production of this show a couple of years ago at the Herberger. But this is the first time Moon Over Buffalo has been produced here; my pal was referring to Noises Off, a sillier, more entertaining play with a similar story line.

Ludwig did all this better with his Lend Me a Tenor, a 1989 Broadway hit that played first at Phoenix Theatre and has since become a local perennial. While the company and director Griffin have failed in the past with similar fare, this time out they've at least choked a couple of laughs and a few good performances from a harmless bit of theatrical fluff.

Moon Over Buffalo continues through Sunday, March 8, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell. For more details, see the Performance listing in Thrills.


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