Reversal of fortune

Buffalo tactics entertain, enliven
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  August 23, 2006

FAMILY TIFFS: Which is whom?
Have you ever reacted aggressively against some lifestyle choice of your forebears? Say they’re staunch supporters of the Democratic Leadership Council, so you went out and voted for Nader; or instead of joining a fold of cops, you moved out to Humboldt County to go into agriculture. Well, lovely young Rosalind (Emily Casale) has alpha theater fiends for family, and she is entirely over the dramatics. This is staid, repressed 1953, after all, and the minute-to-minute histrionics of parents George and Charlotte (David S. Miller and Margaret Bush) and Grandma Ethel (Mary Jo Keffer) have been enough to propel Rosalind into a reactive 180 (a career in advertising) in Moon Over Buffalo, an old-school theater-of-the-theater comedy on stage at the Arundel Barn Playhouse.

Rosalind’s also given up her show-business beau Paul (Mike Anderson), who tours with her parents and grandmother, for a Mr. Bean-ish weatherman named Howard (Mikey LoBalsamo). In fact, the only reason she’s come to Buffalo’s Erlanger Theatre at all is to announce their engagement. First things first, though: more pressing things for everyone to deal with include an ingénue impregnated by George (Anne Montavon), Charlotte’s impending flight with George’s lawyer Richard (Kevin Hauver), and a possible movie deal with Frank Capra that could save the downward spiral of George’s and Charlotte’s theatrical careers.

The screwball comedy of chase scenes and mistaken identities that ensues plays out mostly in the backstage of the theater, on a set that’s festooned with playbills and old props — fans, canes, battle axes, a mounted fish. The room is also outfitted with five doors (one a closet) through which countless high-speed entrances and exits are deftly timed. This is a high-energy play, with all the mania you might expect of the theater’s take on itself, and Arundel Barn’s nimble summer stock is certainly up-to-speed. Their lunges and parries — whether with foils or voices — keep the pace snappy and the delivery sharp.

There is particular abandon and luxury in the spats of the older generations. In the hands of Miller and Keffer, the openly disparaging exchanges between George and Ethel are like a delicious and unhealthy dessert. And it’s as if George and Charlotte, theatrically caught between marital discord and devotion, are double-fisted with tasty and equally tempting cocktails. George also takes a literal turn for the drunken, one of many plot switchbacks. Miller plays him more as a little Napoleon than a Spencer Tracey of a leading man, and his drunken monologues often lean a bit closer to pathos than comedy. But he still entertains well, especially in smaller moments (he makes great understated humor of having “underestimated coffee,” which is laced, unbeknownst to him, with Jack Daniel’s). Bush’s Charlotte moves smoothly from outraged to ingratiating with the willful grace of a true diva. She does well in projecting the simultaneous self-consciousness and obliviousness that seem to mark many of Charlotte’s kind.

Ludwig’s script is witty and fast, peppered with knowing allusions and impromptu recitations from the classics. It captures the tension of the day between the movies and the stage, and makes it clear with which zany lifestyle the playwright’s loyalties lie. In one of the few serious scenes, George lovingly quotes Prospero, and elsewhere, in a defense of his vocation, offers that without theater, “we would all be Republicans.”

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