It was the dawning of a new era, the Ike Age, when longtime touring actors were feeling the pinch — from the big screens showing colorful Hollywood epics and the little babysitting boob tubes oozing black-and-white pap. George and Charlotte Hay are struggling to make ends meet in 1953, but they can't meet their brave little repertory company's payroll as they struggle to finish a puny run in the sticks.
Where are these aging hams, so true to one another in their glamorous, conceited fashions? Well, playwright Ken Ludwig had worn out — and brutally trampled — his welcome in Cleveland with his previous showbiz farce, Lend Me a Tenor. So he moved the action Upstate for Moon Over Buffalo. Just to be stuck in such a backwater is humiliating for artistes such as the Hays, an open invitation to ridicule.
Like playing in Charlotte or, god help us, Davidson.
Fortunately, Ludwig is adept at having it both ways in his farces, making fun of the artistes' lordly pretensions while taking the occasional jab at the provincialism that is assumed to exist everywhere outside the borough of Manhattan. That is one reason why Moon Over Buffalo can play so successfully off Exit 30 at Duke Family Performance Hall in a Davidson Community Players production. Another reason is that director Anne Lambert has driven a cartload of ace professional-quality actors up I-77 and deposited them at the state-of-the-art Davidson College venue.
To do such grandly ridiculous comedy on such a big stage for such a big house isn't for beginners. But the design team is equally studded with blue-chip talent. Anna Sartin's set distills backstage seediness without descending into dullness — and the many doors that equip this farce may be sturdy enough to weather a second weekend of slamming. Costume designs by Jamey Varndore not only take us back to the '50s, but they also straddle the two imaginary worlds where the Hays' company dwells — the chivalric realm of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and the silky elegance of Noel Coward's Private Lives.
At the apex of the farce, when all the Hays' desperate hopes and mutual betrayals are careening toward catastrophe, the company takes a hilariously heroic stab at doing both of these radically different plays at the same time. Not on purpose, of course, but as a result of time pressure, the great Hollywood director Frank Capra coming to see the show, and George's colossal drunkenness, all stirred into impossible confusion by his mother-in-law Ethel's not quite absolute stone deafness.
With all his piratical exploits at Children's Theatre, James Dracy is more accustomed to the outsized flamboyance of George Hay than Elyse Williams is to the excesses of Charlotte, but there are scant instances when Dracy's infantilism overshadows Williams' shrewish regality. Their first grand entrance is with sabers rattling, thanks to some fine fight choreography by Tim Ross.
Trying to escape all this craziness — but irresistibly drawn back — is Aby Pagan as George's daughter Rosalind, especially fine when she steps into the breach and tries to begin Private Lives. With her, she brings her fiancé Howard, a TV weatherman who personifies all the ordinariness in the world that the Hays are fighting futilely to transcend. Philip Robertson may be the best Howard that I've seen, adulating the Hays to the point of paralysis yet oblivious to the smallness of his own weatherman world.
There are numerous other gems in the cast. Bill Mazzella gives a fine account of Paul, the stagestruck boyfriend Rosalind can't forget, and Olivia Dalzell is an appropriately dewy Eileen, the credulous ingenue that George has knocked up. Counterbalancing that peccadillo, Jim Esposito is Richard, lawyer to the stars, ever-ready to whisk Charlotte away to lunch or Reno. Yet the crown jewel among the supporting gems is Gloria King's way with the deaf Ethel, a compromise between agitation and insouciance that lies midway between Marion Lorne and Betty White.