The first act of Ken Ludwig's "Moon Over Buffalo" ends with a piercing scream. It is a scream that should thrill any real theatergoer because it belongs to Carol Burnett, making her first Broadway appearance in more than 30 years.
No one could be happier than I am that she has come back, but as long as she waited this long, why didn't she wait until she found a play?
"Moon Over Buffalo," by the author of "Lend Me a Tenor," is a forlorn attempt at farce. A good farce begins in the realm of plausibility, then leapfrogs into zaniness. Virtually nothing in "Moon" is plausible.
Set in 1953, it concerns one of those acting couples who used to barnstorm America. George and Charlotte Hay (Burnett and Philip Bosco) have arrived to do a few weeks of repertory in Buffalo, wounded because they have just lost a chance to star in a film directed by Frank Capra. Lo and behold, Ronald Colman, who got the part, breaks his legs, and Capra is going to fly to Buffalo to see the Hays.
Does it seem plausible that Capra has somehow never seen a couple who are described as among the great luminaries of the American stage? Is it possible that the Hays don't even know what Capra looks like and can thus mistake a prospective son-in-law for the great director?
To enliven matters, George has a drinking problem and has gotten the company's ingenue pregnant. To provide a host of misunderstandings, Charlotte's mother, who manages the theater, is almost deaf. On such slim twigs rests Ludwig's jerry-built plot.
Most of the complications seem strained and enervating, though Ludwig gets some mileage from a sequence in which most of the bedraggled company attempts to perform "Private Lives" with George stumbling onstage thinking he's in "Cyrano."
Burnett has always had a peculiarly theatrical energy and a crazy willingness to take risks. She has wonderful moments throughout, especially one where she gets hit by a swinging door and keeps a regal bearing. But the material really doesn't give her any support. She deserves much better.
Bosco has the best part in the play. The drunken George lunges through the second act like some ungainly animal rampaging through an overgrown forest. Bosco throws himself into the role with a wild gusto far more adventurous than anything he has done in years.
Randy Graff brings a wonderful abandon to the role of their daughter, who tries valiantly to keep her parents' lives in order. She is especially funny ad-libbing in the misbegotten "Private Lives." Jane Connell is expectedly dizzy as the deaf grandmother.
There is admirable work by Dennis Ryan as the daughter's former boyfriend and Andy Taylor as a TV weatherman. James Valentine is strong in the thankless role of a lawyer. Kate Miller is way over the top as the ingenue. Heidi Landesman's set has an endearingly ramshackle quality, and Bob Mackie's costumes have droll theatricality. Under Tom Moore's direction, the energy level is almost exhaustingly high. The hysteria of the stage business only underscores the play's hollowness.
Carol Burnett's fans can rejoice this morning. Last night in Ken Ludwig's farce "Moon Over Buffalo," opening at the Martin Beck Theater, TV's diva made a triumphant return to our stage, putting not a grimace wrong or leaving an acidulated accent misplaced.
The play may have its faults - indeed it does - but a lack of laughs is happily not among them. At its best it is hilarious, and even at its worst it's very funny.
Helped by Tom Moore's deftly resourceful staging, it also delivers some exquisitely polished comic acting from Philip Bosco, Burnett, Randy Graff and the rest of the cast, building up its laughs methodically shtick by shtick.
The unlikely - yet not too unlikely - story surrounds a downwardly mobile acting couple, the Hays, who are not precisely the Lunts, facing disaster on tour in Buffalo, with a repertory consisting of "Cyrano de Bergerac" (revised for five actors, "a sort of one-nostril version") and Noel Coward's "Private Lives."
It is 1953. Television is spreading its antennae over the land. Hollywood has proved less than kind or even welcoming to the Hays. And their own private lives could do with a little improvement.
George (Bosco), for example, has unhappily impregnated the juvenile lead, Eileen (Kate Miller) in a rare moment of unusually careless rapture. Charlotte (Burnett) is seriously thinking (not perhaps for the first time) of running off with their rich agent Richard Maynard (James Valentine) who has unavailingly loved her for years.
Their daughter Rosalind (Graff) is also in a mess. Giving up acting, and also her actor-fiance Paul (Dennis Ryan), who happens to be the Hays' general manager, she has now found a new fiance in the shape of Howard (Andy Taylor) a dim TV weatherman (doubtless on his way to become David Letterman, but that would be another story) whom she has brought round to meet the folks.
The histrionic crew is completed by Charlotte's largely deaf mother, Ethel (Jane Connell), the company dresser, and critic enough to opine sniffily at a mildly disastrous rehearsal of the "Cyrano," that "I've seen more talent in a dog show." But suddenly, dropping from thespian heaven comes a great, wondrous opportunity.
In far-off Hollywood, Ronald Coleman, filming a Scarlet Pimpernel epic that George dearly coveted for himself, has just broken his leg. (No wonder, by 1953, Coleman is already 62 and virtually retired!) and his co-star, Greer Garson, has walked off the set.
A last chance then for George and Charlotte - and miracle of miracles, the director Frank Capra (no less) is that very moment shuffling off (well, flying actually) to Buffalo to catch their matinee, and possibly to act as fairy Godfather to their waning careers.
If there's a matinee. There's the rub. And what kind of matinee will Capra see. Will Charlotte appear? Will George be sober? Will Rosalind return to the stage? And will Capra see "Cyrano," "Private Lives" or a disturbing mixture of the two?
All is answered, sometimes with bewildering gusto. Indeed the ending - as so often with farces and thrillers - is disappointing. But the journey to that end proves diverting enough, and Ludwig stuffs his play with comic invention, running gags which only occasionally limp, and a neat sense of absurdity.
Burnett, looking gogeous, screams deliciously (wait for her cry of "Roxanne"), the perfect Bosco has a deliriously abandoned drunk scene, Graff reveals amusing aplomb in handling an actor's nightmare, and Moore's whole cast chugs away with dextrous charm.
Add to all this Heidi Landesman's clever setting and you have an evening of no great comic moment but considerable farcical delight. Go and enjoy.
After an absence of 30 years but looking newly minted, Carol Burnett is back on Broadway, where she opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater in Ken Ludwig's farce "Moon Over Buffalo." In effect, she also broke a bottle of Champagne over the bow of the new Broadway season. Whether or not it will go straight to the bottom is still anybody's guess.
Time hasn't tarnished Ms. Burnett's cockeyed splendor; her game goofiness remains intact. If time has done anything at all, it has enriched the comic presence she first displayed in the theater in "Once Upon a Mattress" and then in "Fade Out, Fade In" before moving on to her glory days in television.
Time and "Moon Over Buffalo" have also reinforced my long-held suspicion that Ms. Burnett can locate a laugh in an empty laundry hamper or, as in this case, its reasonable equivalent. When there's no laugh to be had, there are smiles. No other performer prompts so much free-flowing good will, no matter what the material.
That's not the only upbeat news.
The other is that her co-star is Philip Bosco, who five minutes ago, it seems, was playing the chilly, tyrannical father in the current revival of "The Heiress," making life miserable for Cherry Jones. Now, in very different circumstances, he's having himself a high old actorly time as he chews scenery, gets roaring drunk, falls off a balcony and makes life miserable for Ms. Burnett.
"Moon Over Buffalo" presents Ms. Burnett and Mr. Bosco as Charlotte and George Hay, a 1953 acting couple who aren't in quite the same league as the Lunts. The Hays are hams past their prime. They have worked in Hollywood, but without marked success. Charlotte ruefully remembers her days at MGM, playing an inarticulate squaw in a western while Greer Garson, on the soundstage next door, was queening around as Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice."
When the Hays are first met, they're at the Erlanger Theater in Buffalo, touring in repertory with Noel Coward's "Private Lives" and Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac," artfully edited by George to be played by a cast of five.
In the course of the single day spanned by "Moon Over Buffalo," Charlotte learns that George is responsible for the pregnancy of the troupe's ingenue. In a panic, he goes off on a binge. They also receive word that Frank Capra is flying into town to catch their matinee: he may want George to replace Ronald Colman in "The Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Further, some actors are under the impression that they will be playing "Private Lives" at the matinee, while others go on in costume for "Cyrano." At one point, Charlotte mistakes her daughter's fiance, a bewildered television weather forecaster, for Frank Capra.
This is a decent setup for good, farcical confusion. The awful truth is that "Moon Over Buffalo" has only a couple of real payoffs; mostly it's the spectacle of Ms. Burnett, Mr. Bosco and a cast of energetic farceurs trying desperately to make good on the playwright's I.O.U.
Under the direction of Tom Moore, people enter and exit at breakneck speed, though the comic momentum fails to build. Backstage chaos, mistaken identities and egos the size of Gibraltar promise rewards that are seldom paid in full. When we witness the sodden George enter the first scene of "Private Lives" dressed not as Elyot but as Cyrano, we laugh not at what happens but in hope that the moment will top our expectations. It doesn't.
Mr. Ludwig, whose credits include "Lend Me a Tenor," the 1989 comedy hit for which Mr. Bosco received a Tony, and the book for "Crazy for You," is one of those comparatively rare contemporary playwrights who thinks in terms of old-fashioned, knockabout farce. That's something to be cherished and nourished. Yet "Moon Over Buffalo" still seems unfinished.
This may be in part because Mr. Ludwig, according to published reports, has been busily trying to beef up Ms. Burnett's role in a play that was written as a vehicle for Mr. Bosco. It's George who has the big drunk scene, who does the pratfalls and whose blind egomania threatens life, limb and economic well-being. Charlotte is the relatively sane and passive onlooker. As "Moon Over Buffalo" now stands, Ms. Burnett has a number of one-liners and one grand double take, but no major moments. She's a criminally underused resource.
It doesn't help that "Moon Over Buffalo" recalls such backstage classics as "20th Century," "To Be or Not to Be" and "Kiss Me, Kate," works in which battling theatrical couples give voice to the furies that in commonplace marriages remain politely unspoken.
This is one of the reasons those plays and films are so funny. "Moon Over Buffalo" is halfway to that end, but George and Charlotte never connect. Mr. Bosco and Ms. Burnett get no chance to play off each other. One longs to see these tacky megalomaniacs teetering on the brink of committing bloody murder. Instead, they're almost polite.
Anyone who saw Randy Graff in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23d Floor" or in the McCarter Theater's production of the Tom Stoppard farce "Rough Crossing" knows her as an excellent comic actress. Here, she too must play it comparatively straight as Rosalind, the Hays' daughter, who has given up the theater for advertising and an engagement to a wimp. Also noteworthy is Jane Connell, who plays Charlotte's stone-deaf mother. Her hearing disadvantage leads to one of the evening's more successful snafus when coffee that she has laced with whisky is poured into George to sober him up.
Further support to the stars is given by Dennis Ryan playing the stage manager Rosalind really loves, Kate Miller as the ingenue, Andy Taylor as the weatherman and James Valentine as the Hays' lawyer. Bob Mackie, in an unusually self-effacing mode, designed the 1950's costumes, which are exactly right.
The production benefits hugely from Heidi Landesman's set, which suggests a witty, tank-town sendup of John Napier's double-decker "Sunset Boulevard" design. The main playing area is the Erlanger's backstage green room. From time to time Ms. Landesman also allows us to see what's happening on the stage itself as it might be viewed by a sleepy stagehand. There is a problem, however: not in the design, but in the way the playwright and the director use it.
There are four doors in the set, one leading outside, one to a capacious closet and two to the various dressing rooms. Yet for reasons that still puzzle me, and for no discernible comic purpose, characters have a way of leaving through one dressing-room door and re-entering through another. It's a small point, but for farce to work, the audience must have a clear sense of the geography of the adjacent battlefields.
Farce should celebrate confusion. Too often "Moon Over Buffalo" inspires it.
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.