Tapped by his unlikely colleague Michael Bennett to tweak the script of “A Chorus Line” 20 years ago, Neil Simon wrote the definitive Buffalo putdown, and that should have put an end to the matter. If, as the line had it, committing suicide in Buffalo would be redundant, it’s not stretching things too much to say that committing Buffalo jokes and hearing-aid jokes, not to mention pregnant-ingenue jokes, is suicide on Broadway these days unless they are very sharply observed and strike their targets with efficiency and precision. In Ken Ludwig’s mild new farce, “Moon Over Buffalo,” they are not, and do not. Nearly every arrow falls short of the mark.
The happy occasion of “Moon Over Buffalo” is the return to Broadway after 30 years of Carol Burnett, whose career was made with Mary Rodgers'”Princess and the Pea” sendup “Once Upon a Mattress” in 1959 and secured five years later with “Fade Out — Fade In.” Both of those shows were staged by the late George Abbott , whose keen sensibilities as director, writer and script doctor could well have been used here. “Moon” will not replicate the Broadway success Ludwig previously enjoyed with “Lend Me a Tenor” and the book for “Crazy for You.”
Burnett plays Charlotte Hay, a stage actress of a certain age married to a lesser light, George (Philip Bosco). Mother-in-law Ethel (Jane Connell) pointedly observes that George “is a walking ham — they should stick cloves in him and serve him with pineapple.” (If you find this line fresh, rather than smoked, skip the rest of the review and hurry over to the Beck.)
It’s a family business: George and Charlotte, her mother and their now-grown daughter, Rosalind (Randy Graff), have spent their lives on the road playing warhorses like “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Private Lives” in theaters like the present one, Heidi Landesman’s giddy homage to the Erlanger in Buffalo. The play opens poorly, with George in rehearsal trying to coax some excitement out of Cyrano’s battlefield sidekicks — vainly, as it happens, and no wonder: These enervated supernumeraries haven’t been paid in weeks.
“It’s 1953 and the road is dead,” victim of the “entertainment by the yard” that is television, one character laments. George refers to his sorry troupe as “The House of Usher Repertory Theater.” Once stage-struck, Rosalind is now engaged to a temperate weatherman, Howard (Andy Taylor), ending the dynasty, and George’s dalliance with an ingenue (Kate Miller) has resulted in her pregnancy. Things look bleak, indeed.
But across the country, the dashing Ronald Colman has broken both legs on the first day of filming “The Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel,” and director Frank Capra, inexplicably believing that only undashing George can fill his star’s shoes, is hightailing it out to Buffalo to catch the matinee of “Private Lives.” Or is it “Cyrano”?
“Moon Over Buffalo” is really George’s play, and first among its many problems is that there’s not much for Burnett to do. Actually, there’s not much for George to do either, except get very drunk and quote Falstaff, a minor feat at which Bosco is a past master. But very little of what transpires in this comedy makes sense, whether it is Charlotte mistaking the goofy Howard for Capra or Capra’s thinking that Bosco’s aged George would be a likely stand-in for Colman in the first place.
It’s also hard to reckon how a company in such straits could afford such snazzy, sequined costumes (though we’re grateful to Bob Mackie for them anyway, because the women look terrif).
Still, even at a slight one hour and 40 minutes with intermission, “Moon Over Buffalo” seems padded, its humor a little desperate, as in one bit that involves George emerging from a closet to set up a shamelessly anachronistic joke. Most of the second act is taken up with a balcony scene in which some actors are playing Rostand, others Coward. While Graff is briefly amusing when the panic-stricken Rosalind undertakes to deliver all of “Private Lives” herself, the scene wears out its welcome long before grinding to a halt.
Relentlessly second-rate, “Moon Over Buffalo” never stops trying to please, and it has a message, too, sort of: The theater, Ethel says, “is our lifeline to humanity — without it we’d all be Republicans.” But even so skilled a director as Tom Moore has been unable to spark the comedy. It’s a wasted opportunity that provokes sadness rather than anger.
The hard-working stars seem merely miscast, but Graff — who actually looks as if she might be Burnett’s daughter — and Connell are fine in stock roles, as is James Valentine as the dapper agent who just wants to take Charlotte away from all this (would that he could). Playing the long-suffering trouper whom Rosalind really loves, Dennis Ryan is as out of his league in this company as the other youngsters, Miller and Taylor.
What does work is Landesman’s evocative set, primarily the Erlanger’s green room, which unfolds after the prologue like a giant pop-up model, and which is lit mostly in appropriately fading yellows by Ken Billington. A gorgeous curtain depicting New York State (with Binghamton misspelled, unfortunately, as if it were a lost colony from the East End of Long Island) greets the audience. It promises gilt and gossamer, romance and hijinx, that “Moon Over Buffalo” never delivers.