The pre-Broadway Boston opening of “Moon Over Buffalo” Aug. 15 was far more a matter of potential than fulfillment. If Ken Ludwig’s new backstage farce is to emulate the success of his “Lend Me a Tenor,” a vast amount of work will have to be done by virtually everyone involved before its Broadway opening Oct. 1 — not least Ludwig, who has yet to supply Carol Burnett with a strong enough role for her long-awaited Broadway return after 30 years away.
Although Burnett gets top billing above the title with co-star Philip Bosco, Bosco has the star role. As of now, Burnett’s is a supporting part. The balance must be redressed. And while Ludwig’s about it, he needs to strengthen his first act, starting with the weak opening setup scenes prior to the appearance of Burnett and Bosco, dueling, in full “Cyrano de Bergerac” costumes and wigs. They’re the stars; get them on sooner or significantly strengthen the opening minutes of exposition.
Farce needs a strong backbone of logic for its lunacy to be genuinely hilarious. This logic, which was evident in “Tenor” and even more so in Michael Frayn’s classic backstage farce “Noises Off,” is missing in “Moon.”
Burnett and Bosco play a husband-and-wife acting team, Charlotte and George Hay, touring the country with their small company in 1953, performing in rotating rep “Private Lives” and “Cyrano.” They’ve shuffled off to Buffalo for a run.
Elsewhere, Frank Capra has begun filming “The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel” with Ronald Colman. On the first day of filming, Colman has broken both legs. We are then asked to believe that Capra is on his way to Buffalo to see George in performance as a possible replacement for Colman.
But Bosco’s character is far too old to play the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Capra urgently needed someone to take over an older character role, we could believe the situation. But we can’t believe this one, which is of no help to the play or Bosco.
Nevertheless, Bosco does getmost of the play’s meat, including a second-act drunk scene in which he gets to drop his drawers, spout (and decry) Shakespeare and, literally, come out of the closet. The play ends with Bosco’s aging actor (“a walking ham,” according to his mother-in-law) seguing into the renunciation scene from “The Tempest.”
There are funny moments and fresh jokes in “Moon Over Buffalo.” But there are also moments that aren’t funny and jokes that are stale. Inevitably, Cyrano’s nose is used as a phallic symbol. And the mother-in-law (Jane Connell) is a walking joke in that she’s deaf as a post, thereby setting up many of the play’s awkward situations as she potters about as wardrobe mistress and bit player. Connell plays her with gusto.
The two supporting players who have the best of “Moon Over Buffalo” are Randy Graff, as the Hays’ daughter, Rosalind, and James Valentine as a lawyer who wishes to take Charlotte away from her happless husband and marry her. Graff works splendidly, particularly in the play’s climactic scene, in which “Private Lives” and “Cyrano” are hopelessly enmeshed at the matinee Capra is supposed to be attending. She plays Sybil in Noel Coward’s opening balcony scene, desperately retaining her gesturing poise and frightfully British accent as she waits, forever, for George to appear as Elyot. When he finally does he’s drunk — and dressed as Cyrano. Farcical chaos mounts with the entrance of Charlotte as Amanda and company manager Paul (a lively, likable Dennis Ryan) as Victor. But there’s no doubt that Graff has the cream of this scene.
As for Valentine, he brings a wonderfully droll British dizziness to his lawyer.
Yet “Moon Over Buffalo” never builds as “Tenor” did, in large part because of its lack of logic, but also because Tom Moore’s direction lacks the deft inevitability of Jerry Zaks’ staging of “Tenor” (let alone Michael Blakemore’s helming of “Noises Off”).
Bosco works hard and hard and fast as the again ham actor. But at 65 he looks, at times, overwhelemed by the part. Nevertheless, he’s the one who is called upon to hold “Moon” together — and does so as much as is now possible.
Burnett is still very much a stage star, but doesn’t have a role that make anywhere near enough use of her superb comedic gifts. As is to be expected, some of her line readings are priceless; she gets to do her Shirley Temple impersonation, which isn’t necessarily a good idea. Burnett has magnetic presence in “Moon,” but her role doesn’t.
Two other actors are just fine: As a nerdy TV weatherman engaged to Rosalind, Andy Taylor gets caught between the Hays’ dueling swords, is mistaken for Capra and has to dress up as Patton. Kate Miller is the ingenue who, of course, Bosco’s character gets in the family way.
“Moon Over Buffalo” is a small play and tends to be overwhelmed by Heidi Landesman’s sets, which include an upper-level stage on which a pointless dress-rehearsal battle scene from “Cyrano” opens the play.
Bob Mackie’s costumes are far too lavish for an impoverished touring company George refers to as “the House of Usher Repertory Theater.” There are only five actors in “Cyrano” and no one has been paid for two weeks. Yet the “Private Lives” and “Cyrano” costumes are brand-new and gorgeous, while Charlotte’s street clothes look as though Dior were her personal designer.
A lot of experienced people are involved with “Moon Over Buffalo,” and they may be able to pull it together by Oct. 1. But it won’t be easy.