“Light Up the Sky,” Moss Hart’s cockeyed valentine to the American theater, can take more than its fair share of abuse and still emerge victorious, but how refreshing to encounter a staging that does this play honor. As directed by David Lee, co-creator of TV stalwarts “Wings” and “Frasier,” this production of the 1948 work is everything it should be: manic, outlandish and not-at-all self-important. Perhaps because comedy is second nature to Lee, and certainly because he has cast a team of seasoned, sympathetic thesps, the laughs don’t stop here, not even for the dialogue.
Would that more comedies had such problems. Even when audiences’ guffaws interrupt Hart’s coruscating lines, it hardly seems to matter, so full of energy is this paean-cum-farce. The story takes place entirely in actress Irene Livingston’s hotel suite before and after the opening of a new play — but what a difference a curtain makes. All the jolly back-patting suddenly turns to acrimony once the motley crew assembled thinks the play will bomb. Only the positive notices in the next morning’s papers save the day, ultimately healing the wounds previously inflicted.
What Hart intended was a play that lovingly underscored the lunacy of the theater and its practitioners, and he achieved that tribute by wrapping his thoughts in inspired yuks.
Lee’s staging succeeds in keeping auds from dwelling on the work’s antique elements by never letting his cast sit still, and his method proves ingenious. But it wouldn’t add up to much with inferior actors. Ironically, Hart (who died in 1961) made assembling a strong cast a difficult task, for his characters are anything but stock types. Based on real people, including Hart himself, they require subtle shading to really come alive.
But that’s not a problem here, where even the few characters who are window dressing (the secretary Miss Lowell and William H. Gallagher, the Shriner) spring to life. More significantly, such excellent actors as Millicent Martin (as the barbed-tongued Stella Livingston, Irene’s mother) and Mark Capri (as the outre director Carleton Fitzgerald) lay into their larger-than-life parts with relish.
Martin may at first seem too formal for the earthy Stella, but she makes this matron wonderfully her own. Capri plays the helmer floridly, but not gay, and in the process creates a Carleton that is nothing short of the Platonic ideal.
Dan Butler has a tough time sticking to one accent, but the diminutive actor is a veritable human canon ball as the avaricious producer Sidney Black. And Linda Hart, as Sidney’s wife Frances, makes something really substantive out of what is too often a mere sex kitten role.
Suzie Plakson overdoes the Katharine Hepburn routine as the overwrought Irene, but her collapse on the staircase at the end of act two may be this production’s funniest moment.
Mark Blum’s Owen Turner makes the most of a largely straight-man role, and Matt Roth plays Peter Sloan, the novice playwright, with a fine mixture of passion and callowness.
Roy Christopher’s set proves delicious eye candy, even if no Boston hotel suite even looked quite this sumptuous. And Randy Gardell’s costumes are appropriately lavish. Michael Gilliam’s lighting and Anthony Carr’s sound design work fine, but why the thunder and lightning in act two?
On the other hand, projecting a film of an atomic bomb exploding just before the curtain goes up on the second act is truly inspired.