Review: ‘Light Up the Sky’

Tone, sometimes, is everything in the theater. And it's certainly the case with Moss Hart's "Light Up the Sky," a 1948 vinegar-laced valentine to the theater, currently in revival at the La Jolla Playhouse. Unfortunately, director Neel Keller's sometimes estimable "50th Anniversary Production" never captures the elusive tone essential to making Hart's gossamer vehicle an endearing relic.

Tone, sometimes, is everything in the theater. Certainly that’s true when it comes to Shaw. Or Philip Barry’s drawing-room comedies. And it’s the case with Moss Hart’s “Light Up the Sky,” a 1948 vinegar-laced valentine to the theater, currently in revival at the La Jolla Playhouse. Unfortunately, director Neel Keller’s sometimes estimable “50th Anniversary Production” never captures the elusive tone essential to making Hart’s gossamer vehicle an endearing relic. Instead, this staging serves as a cautionary tale: Some shows, despite their quaint appeal, ought to be read (or read about) rather than experienced.

The storyline is a perennial. Several people closely associated with a new show gather in a Boston hotel room to await its fate on the opening night of a pre-Broadway run. At the center of things is the play’s star, Irene Livingston (Linda Gehringer), in whose suite all the action occurs. Her tart, outspoken mother, Stella (Dena Dietrich), is staying with her, and the ghostwriter of her “autobiography,” Miss Lowell (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), is hanging around, too.

The play’s effeminate director, Carleton Fitzgerald (Peter Bartlett) keeps popping in, as do overbearing producers Sidney Black (Robert Ari) and his wife Frances (Angie Phillips).

Reluctantly, the laconic novice playwright, Peter Sloan (Barry Del Sherman), appears. Unexpected visitors include Irene’s dense husband Tyler Rayburn (Michael Bakkensen) and Owen Turner (Richmond Hoxie), an old friend and more experienced playwright. It’s like “Grand Hotel” fused with a Marx Brothers vehicle.

Needless to say, Sloan’s theatrical debut is ostensibly a miserable flop, and the moment these folks realize it, fingers begin wagging and tempers flare. Yet somehow, none of that matters to the hopeless stage denizens. And in the end, they predictably vow to push forward. There’s no business like show business and all that.

With its comic possibilities, Hart’s often sharp-tongued play should overflow with unforced laughs, but it doesn’t under Keller. There’s little snap or sizzle in the generally able cast’s delivery, though occasionally a thesp will launch a zinger spot on. Dietrich’s Stella has several of the play’s best lines, calling a bottle of Cutty Sark her “opening-night Ovaltine,” for instance, but somehow her timing is off, and she doesn’t project Stella’s swipes firmly enough.

Bakkensen is charmingly addled as Irene’s husband, and Hoxie handles the smug Turner effectively. Better still are Ari’s Sidney, stereotypically blusterous but commanding as well, and Bartlett’s mincing Fitzgerald, a shamelessly over-the-top turn. But the bouquet belongs to Phillips’ Frances, a squawking, platinum blond material girl (and ice skater, no less!) whose common sense is rivaled only by the equally earthy Stella’s. Phillips lends texture to this one-dimensional role, and her timing and comic instincts are flawless.

Gehringer’s Irene should be traipsing across the stage a la Tallulah Bankhead or Katharine Hepburn, but her gestures are far more controlled, not grand enough by half for her outsize character. And up until the final scene, Sherman’s callow playwright is sullen and vacant-eyed when he ought to be intriguingly enigmatic. Bernstine’s Miss Lowell, an underwritten part to be sure, is practically furniture here. And the bit players are distractingly underrehearsed.

Tech credits, though, are above reproach. Allen Moyer’s luxurious hotel suite is resplendent in peach — from the billowing French-window curtains to the dozens of roses. Michael Krass’ costumes are no less striking, rich in silks, satins and, on occasion, sequins. And David Klevens lights everything flatteringly.

For comedy to work, it needs to connect. It’s a task, as Edmund Kean famously noted, that’s harder than it looks. When it succeeds, even the jaded melt. Hart’s wry comedy retains the potential to make us laugh. It’s just that Keller and company have mostly missed that elusive mark this time around.

Light Up the Sky

Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla Playhouse; 499 seats; $39 top

Production

A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of the comedy in three acts by Moss Hart. Directed by Neel Keller.

Creative

Sets, Allen Moyer; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, David Klevens; sound, Jon Gottlieb; stage manager, Tami Toon. Opened Aug. 30, 1998, closes Sept. 27. Reviewed Sept. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Miss Lowell - Quincy Tyler Bernstine Carleton Fitzgerald - Peter Bartlett Frances Black - Angie Phillips Owen Turner - Richmond Hoxie Stella Livingston - Dena Dietrich Peter Sloan - Barry Del Sherman Sidney Black - Robert Ari Sven - David Kupchinsky Irene Livingston - Linda Gehringer Tyler Rayburn - Michael Bakkensen Shriners - David Kupchinsky William H. Gallegher - John Fiedler Shriner/A Plain-Clothes Man - Dohn Norwood
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