On a cold night indicative of February, weary of politicians and the weather, I escaped to Rock Island for the latest District Theatre offering Moon Over Buffalo. A Tony-nominated play that debuted on Broadway in 1995, author Ken Ludwig's farce is a comedy of silly, exaggerated humor, and probably not to every theatre-goer’s taste. But in my opinion, and judging by the belly laughs coming from Friday's opening-night audience, the humor as performed here clearly worked for a number of us.
What Moon Over Buffalo is lacking in plot is made up for in manic energy. The story concerns a day spent with a down-and-out theatre troupe in 1953, whose aging stars, George and Charlotte Hay, still dream of making it big in Hollywood. Their ensemble of five is currently performing two plays in Buffalo – Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Noël Coward’s Private Lives – when they receive a call from their agent telling them that famed director Frank Capra will be flying in to view a performance. If all goes well, he may cast the Hays in his movie. Of course, things do not go well. Confusion and zany mayhem ensue as the couple's daughter drops in with her new fiancé; an affair is revealed; their lawyer shows up to woo Charlotte away from George; mistaken identity results in someone being tied up and stashed in a closet; and a mix-up regarding which play is being performed results in a goofy mash-up of the two.
Directed by Heather Schmidt, Moon Over Buffalo's energetic cast is fun to watch as they romp through this fast-paced play. Mike Kelly, who plays George, and Nancy Teerlinck, who portrays Charlotte, display great timing and playfulness, bantering and battling as a couple whose marriage of 35 years is on the rocks. Teerlinck holds her own against Charlotte's scenery-chewing husband, as Kelly has the more physically demanding role – falling several times and getting rip-roaring drunk, beaten by a rolled-up newspaper, and shot at. Kelly executes each scene with comedic precision, oftentimes while emoting lines from Shakespeare, and while his over-the-top hamming was a bit much – he needed to tone down the big baby act – the leads overall deserve a “Bravo!”
The pairing of the Hays' daughter Roz (Alexis Greene) and company manager Paul (Ian Brown) was not as strong, as the sexual tension that was to be building between them throughout the play wasn’t there. Perhaps Ludwig should have made Paul not as an inept overseer with terrifying stage fright, but a competent actor stuck in his job with two has-beens, which would've made the love scene in which he and Roz read lines from Private Lives more effective.
Chris Tracy's casting as Roz's weatherman fiancé Howard, though, was genius. In his role as a likeable nebbish who first gets mistaken for Frank Capra and then for a killer, each of Tracy’s entrances made me smile with anticipation as to how he would react to his next ridiculous escapade, with the actor switching from a soft-spoken speaking voice to “TV weatherman voice” with surprising ease. (Late in the production, much to the audience's delight, Tracy is even given his own time in the spotlight – which is all I can say without the moment becoming a spoiler.) And returning to the stage after an absence of several years is Susan McPeters as Charlotte’s deaf mother Ethel. The only calm presence in the midst of the surrounding hullabaloo, Ethel's mis-hearings lead to more than one misunderstanding, and McPeters plays her mocking enmity for her son-in-law, and for the whole situation, with churlish charm.
Is there such a thing as a stage-prop hoarder? Because set designer Tristan Tapscott must know one. Moon Over Buffalo's backstage set was made to look like a catchall storage area replete with a wig stand, various hats, a wooden ironing board and iron, an eight-millimeter projector, extension cords coiled and hanging on the wall, and Christmas decorations. This set fit perfectly with the District Theatre’s interior architectural details of relief ceiling and iron-railed balcony, and costume designer Lora Adams outfitted most of the actors appropriately in 1953 attire, with the exception of ingénues Roz and Eileen (Sara Kutzli), whose dresses seemed ill-fitted and not youthful-looking.
Moon Over Buffalo isn’t for someone looking for edgy theatre. It is for those who want to see a good-old-fashioned farce with actors giving performances that entertain and amuse. So take a break from the cold and have a good laugh. It will warm your insides.
Moon Over Buffalo runs at the District Theatre (1724 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island) through February 27, and more information and tickets are available at (309)235-1654 or DistrictTheatre.com.