595 Doors Herald the Mood in NCR’s Well-Conceived ‘Moon Over Buffalo’

Paul (Josh Braaten, from left) stands perplexed as George and Rosalind (Arthur Hanket and Jaque Wilke) and Charlotte (Katrina Ferguson) perplex him. Photo by Aaron Rumley.

One look at the set for Moon Over Buffalo, the current North Coast Repertory Theatre showbiz send-up, and you know what’s in store for the duration. About 48 1/2 doors line its perimeter, all ripe for the slamming; and if that doesn’t foretell a high farce, little else does. The story peaks a crumb too early (farces usually do), and playwright Ken Ludwig’s one-liners are often a tad simplistic.

In fact, if you’ve ever been to a Noel Coward or Philip King entry, you’ve already seen this show, although maybe not with quite the boundless energy these personnel put forth. Farce is devilishly difficult, because it forsakes character development (the actor’s raison d’etre) in favor of the outlandish situation — but this cast is well aware of that, and its collective behaviors trump a lot of the bumps and bruises.

From there, director Matthew Wiener puts the merriment in his charges’ hands, leaving them free to weigh in on the absurdity just inside those 73 doors.

If George and Charlotte Hay have had their best days in the theatrical sun, so too has their marriage seen the brighter side of its run. Their (apparent) last gasp as a couple is on the boards at a schlocky venue in the Buffalo of 1953, wherein George has gone on a bender after knocking up ingenue Eileen and Charlotte prepares to run off with family lawyer Richard.

But wait. Rumor has it that film director Frank Capra will be in the audience for a look at George, who foresees a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a movie appearance and, maybe, the revival of his career.

Things get worse, though, as this company doesn’t know its Cyrano de Bergerac from its Private Lives. The result is a disastrous collision of both plays, which dwarfs daughter Rosalind’s decisions to take up a career in advertising and, it turns out, marry the wrong man.

[M]aybe ‘Oklahoma!’ And ‘Peter Pan’ would’ve made a better mash-up.

Staples like mistaken identity, philandery, onerous horseplay and 135 doors dot the improbable situations here; so do the lamer moments that Ludwig neglects to think through (he sets up a retort about Rosalind’s hefty birth weight, but it falls dead-flat; and lines like “Have I ever lied to you before?” fill space and time rather than plot).

And while Coward’s Private Lives and Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano certainly have their lushness, Ludwig could have dispensed with them in favor of something more timely. The play is set only five years out from the dawn of musical theater’s so-called Golden Age — maybe Oklahoma! and Peter Pan would’ve made a better mash-up.

But the craziness reveals itself in time through clever subtext, chiefly involving Eileen’s and Rosalind’s characters. Wiener exhibits a key instinct as he reins in their development the way Ludwig intended, preventing them from overarching the story or otherwise taking on lives of their own.

George is tight as a drum as his massive ego competes with his taste for hooch — and Arthur Hanket portrays both traits at the drop of a hat. Perhaps cruelly, fishwife Charlotte feeds George’s less desirable aspects; Katrina Ferguson has the character’s diva down accordingly. Brittney Bertier’s Eileen mounts an impressive giggle defense, while Jacque Wilke’s Rosalind (who’s hilarious in the Private Lives fiasco) stands haplessly between ex-boyfriend Paul (Josh Braaten) and the excitable Howard (Arusi Santi), her fiance.

Playwright Ken Ludwig’s send-up isn’t as broad as all that, but his smile is deserved. Public media image.

And please do enjoy Roxane Carrasco’s Ethel, the old major domo whose hearing loss vies with her grumpy take on life. Ludwig couches the role in gimmickry, but Carrasco’s nonetheless endearing.

Marty Burnett’s set is cluttered with old play posters and show schedules in between the 441 doors; the design is an architect’s dream in that it doesn’t waste a square inch of space. Costumer Elisa Benzoni displays her usual excellent eye for color, and Benjamin Cole’s funny fight choreography caps the right complement of technical work.

Capra, who died in 1991 at age 94, was the iconic director behind several feature films of the 1930s and ‘40s, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life — so at first, the idea of such a movie great at a stuffy Buffalo theater is a bit of a stretch. But that’s just it: Farce blatantly ignores these stereotypes the same way dreams dispense with reality. I’m not a huge fan of the genre, because its over-the-top affectations can appear preconceived; with this show, they’re mostly anything but. Fun piece.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Jan. 13. Moon over Buffalo runs through Feb. 10 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $47-$52. (858) 481-1055, northcoastrep.org.

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