Turkey Under Glass

In 1993, the acclaimed husband-and-wife documentary team of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker released The War Room, an intimate study of the first Clinton/Gore campaign. That done, they turned their cameras on the mounting of a less successful comedy: Ken Ludwig's Broadway farce Moon Over Buffalo, which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in October of 1995 and limped through a nine-month run. The resulting film, Moon Over Broadway, may be of less historical import, but it's no less startlingly intimate.

The surprise is that The War Room is a good deal more easygoing, and less tense and excruciating to watch, than Moon Over Broadway. The War Room emerged as a buddy picture. Clinton, probably luckily for him, was a minor character, while George Stephanopoulos and James Carville--the smooth-talking college boy and the shrewd, hustling cracker--turned into the warm, weirdly appealing heroes of the tale. (Primary Colors looks like a trip through a wax museum by comparison.)

After the view that Moon Over Broadway gives of the world of big-money, high-stakes theater, national politics may not seem quite so vicious. It's not that the people connected to Moon Over Buffalo aren't sympathetic--most of them are--it's that they don't seem more than minimally bonded to each other. Many of the hoariest cliches about the professional theater--the cattiness, the absurd vanities, the fragile egos of the stars, the conciliatory director trying frantically to keep everybody happy--show up here full-blown. It's the most pleasant cliche about the theater--the camaraderie it's supposed to breed--that's troublingly absent from most of the film. The atmosphere is one of every person for him or herself.

Moon Over Buffalo was modestly big news in the theater world, because it marked the return to Broadway of Carol Burnett, after more than 30 years on television and in the movies. At the beginning of Hegedus and Pennebaker's chronicle, we see Burnett, her co-star Philip Bosco, producer Elizabeth Williams and playwright Ludwig at a press conference.

Ludwig is asked to explain what his play is about, and he does: It's a backstage farce, set in the early '50s, about a bus-and-truck Lunt and Fontaine who get a (contrived) shot at starring in a Frank Capra film, and go mad with greed.

Ludwig gets this far and pauses, as if this premise by itself should crack everybody up. There's a terrible silence, as the reporters sit staring at him, waiting for the funny part. Then we see the director, Tom Moore, riding in from the airport, explaining his love of farce--the perfect practitioner of the genre, he feels, was Feydeau. We groan at what he's in for; somehow we don't have to be told that Moon Over Buffalo isn't exactly A Flea in Her Ear.

Even so, it's a jolt when we see a few scenes of Ludwig's play being rehearsed and realize just how lame it is. This is the work upon which the producers thought their millions should be lavished? This is the work that Burnett thought would make a triumphant return vehicle?

There's a juicy moment early on when Moore and Ludwig are overheard critiquing Burnett's speedy delivery in rehearsals. "It's television," Moore sniffs. As if slowing down these drab lines would improve them! And as if the better sitcoms on network TV don't offer up writing that makes this play look utterly anemic. Indeed, though terrific writing was never the point of Burnett's own long-running CBS variety show, it seems likely that Moon Over Buffalo, had it been a sketch on that show, would have been sent back to the drawing board.

Hegedus and Pennebaker must have the ability to make themselves invisible. In Moon Over Broadway, as in many of their other films, they capture scene after scene like this--moments that are astonishing not only for the frankness of their subjects, but also for their dramatic aptness, moments that would seem slick or facile if we saw them in a fiction film.

The film traces the whole exhausting process of getting the show on its feet. We see the nervous, phony jocularity of the first read-throughs and blocking rehearsals. We see handsome, blustery old Philip Bosco, who comes across worse than anyone else in the film, blow up when his script suggestions aren't accorded the respect he thinks he's due. We see a young actress go sweetly psycho when she doesn't approve of the photo of her that's up outside the lobby. We endure a dreadful tryout run in Boston, and listen in while the producers toy with the eminently sensible idea of bringing in a gag writer to spruce up the dialogue. Bizarrely, the man they think of hiring is a Long Island dentist who writes jokes as a sideline--this could be a documentary in itself.

The most touching aspect of the film is everyone's growing awareness of the material's shortcomings, and their attempts to face reality without hurting Ludwig's feelings, even though he sees it as clearly as any of them. This nice young fellow, who also wrote the book for the musical Crazy for You, seems to be the victim of a cosmic joke sharper and nastier than any he put into Moon Over Buffalo: He can handle the difficult, taxing work of constructing a farce, but he can't actually write a good joke to save his life. He's a capable, journeyman comic playwright who simply isn't funny.

Somehow not surprisingly, Burnett comes off best. She seems extremely uptight, and she can't have been unaware of the irony that she, one of the authentically great American comediennes of the century, was getting irritable paraphrase notes, and generally being treated like an 18-year-old ingenue, by these boobish second-raters. Yet somehow she keeps her composure and stays gracious. And when we see footage of her actually performing the show--beautifully costumed, as she was on TV, by Bob Mackie--it's clear that no one else could have gotten even this much life out of this tired script.

She gets an even sweeter revenge. A piece of stage machinery breaks down at a preview, making a scene change impossible, and Moore has to step in front of the curtain to tell the audience about the delay. In desperation, he asks Burnett to join him. "Sure!" she says, and you can hear the relief in her voice. Out they go, and within seconds Burnett is doing her old opening shtick from her TV show--taking questions, improvising jokes, pulling faces, flirting with the audience--and she has them laughing far harder than anything in the play.

There's another irony that Hegedus and Pennebaker captured: In one sense, Moon Over Buffalo wasn't really a failure. Its run of 361 performances wasn't a smash, but it was perfectly respectable, and Burnett and Bosco were both nominated for Tonys.

And the show will almost certainly have a long life in regional, dinner and community theater--it's already been produced all over the U.S., and in many other countries (Phoenix Theatre staged it just a few months ago). While countless better plays are gathering dust in the bowels of Samuel French, Inc., somebody somewhere will still be trying to wring laughs out of Moon Over Buffalo.

Moon Over Broadway
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; with Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco.



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