by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t one point in Interplayers' current production of Moon Over Buffalo (through Nov. 25), we're informed that an unseen actor has quit the play's fictional acting troupe, complaining that he hasn't been paid for two weeks. "Nobody's been paid for two weeks!" shouts the exasperated leading actor, and the line replicates Interplayers' ongoing financial woes, with resignations and layoffs caused by the theater's inability to pay its staff. It's a sad/funny moment for the production and for the playhouse.
An audience's experience of shuffling through this particular Buffalo is a lot like the experience of the script's wacky theater folks: some scattered miscues, a little amateurishness, brief displays of genuine love for the theater, hammy acting, tonal shifts that don't quite register, outbursts of physical comedy that really are quite funny. Ken Ludwig's 1995 comedy is about touring actors desperate to catch a break -- their crisscrossing jealousies, their longing for the limelight, their continual door-slamming. Director Paul Villabrille's production at Interplayers bungles much of the high jinks, but at least it gets one farce-within-a-farce sequence hilariously right.
We're supposed to be wowed by the first entrance of George and Charlotte Hay (Gary Pierce and Jean Hardie). They're the wannabe stars who are currently playing to adoring crowds in... well, Buffalo, but at least it's in the same state as Manhattan. We're supposed to be slightly in awe of how unconventional, how utterly without self-consciousness these flamboyant theatrical folk are. Hardie and Pierce duly burst onstage quoting lines from various plays and exchanging playful rapier thrusts. There are hints of how playful and how sexually charged this little playtime of theirs is, it's true; but the swordplay is too restrained, the witticisms don't crackle. The Hays are a couple in their 50s who, on their first entrance, need to act like they're in their 20s -- but both Pierce and Hardie seem a little tentative and lot middle-aged.
We need to be thrown from one emotional extreme to another in their performances: rages and anguish in the depths, exasperation and confusion to the max. That kind of dynamic, after all, keeps the engine of farce roaring. But this production's co-stars are both comedic veterans, with Pierce going back more than a decade at Interplayers, and Hardie's 20 years and more at the Civic. As a result, what predominates, even in the more serious moments, are the comic mannerisms -- the buggy eyes, the clothes thrown on in exaggerated resentment.
There are some moments of really fine physical comedy in this Interplayers production, including a sequence in which Pierce, sloshed out of his mind, is hoisted about like a rag doll (by Dan Anderson's stagehand character) and tossed into a closet. There's a terrible, hilarious mash-up of Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives that's so good, you wish the rest of the show could approximate it. At times, too, we get glimpses of the leading couple's playfulness, their genuine enjoyment of their theatrical lives.
But to reinforce the comedy, we need to see the more somber side of Pierce's and Hardie's characters. Because make no mistake -- amid all the tomfoolery, Ludwig has included arias for both characters about how much they love the theater, how much they want to be stars. We have to feel how they long for the glare of the footlights, and we don't.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hile the half-dozen supporting actors are all capable, two in particular stand out -- partly because they're called upon to express their characters' nervousness. As the fianc & eacute; about to meet the famous acting-couple parents for the first time, Damon Mentzer employs a high-pitched laugh and nervous hands -- but he also projects assertiveness at times, rounding out Howard into more than just a nervous weasel.
Similarly, as the Hays' daughter, Kari Mueller seems restrained and proper at first -- none of this theatrical nonsense for her, she's going into advertising -- but then she undergoes every actor's nightmare (being left alone onstage, with no help whatsoever from an actor who's supposed to make an entrance and never appears). During the mash-up scene -- she's trying to do Noel Coward while her father drunkenly insists on portraying Cyrano -- Mueller expresses fear and anger and grace under pressure, all in the same scene. While the rest of the supporting cast can be amusing, Mentzer and Mueller do the best jobs of finding the human contradictions underneath the comedy sketches.
At first, Brian Durbin's otherwise versatile set confines actors to tiny exit areas -- impeding the snap-crackle-pop pace, important in a door-slamming farce. But later, it proves serviceable when the script calls for backstage/front of stage/backstage flops, well executed by the stage crew. After an opening glimpse of just how hammy and inept these actors can be, Villabrille directs a bustling scene change that takes us quickly from the romance of Cyrano to the tawdriness of the Hays' green room backstage.
There's a sad sense in Interplayers' Moon Over Buffalo that characters, actors and theater have all merged: They've all left their best work behind them. Sure, they're still doing good work in fits and starts, but they may have to be content with memories of having given it their best shot.