“Stella by Starlight” is an Irish play. At least, it’s Irish in the sense that it’s written by an Irishman, was first produced in Ireland, is set in Ireland with Irish characters, and even gives a slight nod — no more — to the social issue of economic disparity during Ireland’s 1990s economic boom.
Other than that, it’s an English sex farce.
Overall, it’s a decent diversion, assembled by prolific dramatist Bernard Farrell with a machine-load of cliches, but with its comic cogs in the right places. And this U.S. premiere production of the 1996 work at Laguna Playhouse smartly moves it along, above all else. Still, it’s the type of work one could easily forget before reaching the car for the ride home.
What’s most memorable about “Stella by Starlight” is Stella herself, in this case Amelia White. She’s a good Everywife and Everymother, a wholly likable character who tries to satisfy everybody’s wishes until she reaches the end of her rope.
She wants to please her hubby, Dermot (Warren Sweeney), an amateur astronomer who, after losing his corporate job, has moved the family to some remote hills away from the city where he putters around fixing the floors and the bad heating system. She wants to please her daughter, Tara (Caitlin Shannon), about to go on a first date with a boy whose name, if nothing else about him, resembles that of a movie star.
On this night, Stella also is willing to help Dermot try to impress their visitors, Paul (Thomas MacGreevy) and Geraldine (Bairbre Dowling). The two couples have been friends since high school, and, as in any good sex farce (even one that doesn’t have that much sex in it), the couples were not always coupled in this combination — Paul used to date Stella, and Dermot Geraldine. More importantly, Paul used to work with Dermot, but unlike Dermot, he didn’t get fired and now drives an expensive car and plays golf with the company’s Japanese owners. (There’s the social issue, you see: The economic boom created a rift between those it lifted and those it didn’t. A great deal is made of this in the marketing of the play but not in the play itself.)
Once Geraldine confesses to Stella that her marriage isn’t happy after all and makes a request of her old friend to help her bed her own husband, the plot plows along with a series of drinking bits and contact lens bits and lascivious husband bits and mistaken jealousy bits and the like.
White capably leads the way with a frumpish charm, and the actress even manages to pull off some awkward soliloquies. Dowling is nicely desperate as Geraldine, although there’s room to go even further. As Tara’s date, Joel Moore is an excellent vision of a parent’s worst nightmare, but the leading men make less of an impression. Sweeney plays all of Dermot’s passions in the same key, which really does make him more like a cog than a character, and MacGreevy doesn’t do much at all with the one figure in the play who’s really allowed to be bad.
There’s something cold about it all. Even the best feature of Dwight Richard Odle’s middling set is mechanical — a large sky roof that opens and closes so Warren can take a peak through his massive telescope at Jupiter. On this night, the planet will be hit by a comet, which is clearly supposed to be a metaphor for what’s happening to the humans. What comes across is more like a low-level light show than an astronomical event. Director Andrew Barnicle deserves credit mostly for keeping the show’s electricity running even when the acting and design work don’t create sparks.