When playwright Steven Dietz decided to write a “good old-fashioned ensemble comedy,” he made all the right moves. He turned for source material to P.G. Wodehouse, one of the most prolific comic authors of the 20th century. Then he recruited longtime collaborator David Ira Goldstein to direct and hired 10 crackerjack comic actors to give his words wings. Finally, he teamed with Seattle Repertory Theater and Arizona Theater Co. — institutions with combined resources enough to make a 10-character, lavishly costumed, period comedy fly. And yet, “Over the Moon” never quite reaches the heights of giddy humor it seems to promise. It’s amusing, yes, but here’s the brutal truth about old-fashioned ensemble comedies: There’s simply no reason for them to exist except to debilitate us with laughter, and when we walk away merely amused, there’s a residual feeling of disappointment.
One hates to criticize “Over the Moon,” because it has so obviously been approached with intelligence and care. To begin with, there’s “The Small Bachelor,” the novel on which the script is based. It’s classic Wodehouse: a cannily crafted story of forbidden romance, class conflict, cops and robbers and hidden identities, set in Prohibition-era New York City.
George Finch (R. Hamilton Wright) is a rich, befuddled bachelor, living the bohemian life of a would-be artist. He falls for heiress Molly Waddington (Liz McCarthy), but Molly’s stepmother (Suzy Hunt) objects to the union, thinking Finch is penniless.
Enter Finch’s sensible friend Hamilton Beamish (Bob Sorenson), who conspires with a beautiful palm reader (Kirsten Potter) to bring the lovers together.
Numerous minor characters intervene, many of them stock: There are a couple of petty thieves on their honeymoon (Roberto Guajardo, Julie Briskman), a bumbling police officer (Jeff Steitzer), a clueless patriarch (Ken Ruta) and a delightfully snooty butler named Ferris (David Pichette).
Every role is well-acted, with some standouts: Sorenson, as the right-minded Beamish, tosses off his bon mots with aplomb. Briskman, as a hotsy-totsy pickpocket, uses perfect timing and her remarkable vocal range to focus every scene she’s in. And Pichette — always wonderful — puts in a personal-best performance as a butler so proper he can’t help viewing his “betters” as philistines. (When Molly’s father casually asks Ferris if he’s ever been out West, the butler responds acidly, “I’m from England, sir. This is out West.”)
Scott Weldin’s modular set — evoking romantic New York rooftops, country gardens and underground speakeasies — is versatile and highly detailed. And flapper-era costumes by David K. Mickelsen are enough to make you yearn for yesteryear.
Unfortunately, one can’t say the same for some of the shtick. You know the old joke where one character asks another, “Have you seen so-and-so?” The second character answers, “Oh, you mean the big guy with the red hair who wears a patch over one eye?” First character: “Yeah, that’s the guy.” Second character: “Nope, never seen him.”
When you see it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the archness of it makes it funny. In the context of an earnest exercise in style such as “Over the Moon,” though, the same joke (in slightly different form) just feels old.
And other passages feel tired. In the chase scene at the end, which should be the climax of the confusion and hilarity, several actors get stuck sitting or pacing, waiting for someone else’s entrance or exit. (The hoped-for slamming doors — the delirious moment when a character exits one side of the stage and makes an impossible entrance seconds later on the other — never come.)
But let’s not overstate the play’s drawbacks. On opening night, plenty of patrons exited the theater smiling cheerfully into the brisk, winter night. But one can’t suppress a twinge of regret at being lightly entertained when right now, more than ever, what we really need is to be sent over the moon.