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Best of Boston 2009

True de-Light

Moss Hart and Good Theater send up thespians
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 22, 2009

DECADENT FUN: A strong cast, as usual. 

It's opening night, and in the leading lady's suite at the Ritz-Carlton, key players are drinking a litany of pre-curtain toasts: Fast-talking financier Sidney Black (Stephen Underwood) blesses his first-ever investment in the theater. Veteran playwright Owen Turner (Bob McCormack), himself on hiatus from writing, intones a tribute to nervous young playwright Peter Sloan (Marc Brann, endearingly), who ingenuously extols the "democracy of the theater." Gleaming star Irene Livingstone (Denise Poirer)

LIGHT UP THE SKY | by Moss Hart | Directed by Brian P. Allen | Produced by the Good Theater | through May 10 | part of a Moss Hart festival | staged reading of Hart and George Kaufman's George Washington Slept Here | April 29 @ 7 pm; May 5 @ 7 pm | lecture on Hart and his era with Brian P. Allen | April 26 @ 12:30 pm | all events at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, in Portland | 207.885.5883

glitters, beams, laughs mellifluously. Prone-to-weeping director Carlton Fitzgerald (Mark Honan) pouts when he realizes he's been forgotten in the toastmaking, then raises his glass and emotes. And all the while, Irene's jaded mom Stella (Tootie Van Reenen) and Sidney's sassy celebrity ice-skater wife Frances (Janice Gardner) play gin, ignoring the accolades but never forgetting to drink their neat bourbon. Thus the dramatis personae of Moss Hart's 1948 comedy Light Up the Sky, a love letter to the stage. Brian P. Allen directs a vivacious and superbly cast Good Theater production of Hart's classic, in which the veteran playwright both skewers and celebrates the theatrical life of Broadway's Golden Age.

But the show these folks are drinking to hasn't made it to Broadway yet. This is a Boston trial-run, common during the era, and the critics' pronouncements will mean everything to the future of the play's run in New York and beyond. We witness in Light Up, then, the brief but crucial windows in the life of the show: the jittery pre-curtain "magic time," the manic immediate aftermath of the performance, and the final wee-hour rulings of the critics. Hart provides objective takes on this emotional process in the person of young literary woman Miss Lowell (Laura Graham, crisply), a non-theater person who's ghost-writing Irene's autobiography, and in elder playwright Owen, a knowing theater insider, but an outsider of this particular show. We witness, in this plush suite at the Ritz (given an echt luxury-hotel sheen in Craig Robinson's refined navy blues and golds), the pangs and pleasures of a new birth to the stage.

Caught in the throes of the show's growing pains is a vibrant array of types, with which the Good Theater's cast has decadent and often very virtuosic fun. The role of diva Irene might as well have been written for Poirier, who glides and flutters, effuses and struts and frets, and looks fabulous in a series of luxurious costumes (many on loan from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis). She and Honan egg each other on as the sensitive artistic temperaments of the bunch; and the watchful, knowing gaze of McCormick's Owen, both amused and affectionate, is an elegant counterweight to their histrionics.

As the less-refined Sidney, the angular Underwood is a casting coup, with his blunt gestures and his crass but musical delivery of the financier's alliterative patter and wacky metaphors. His platinum-blonde wife Frances, in Gardner's hands, is another coarse-talking delight — brash, buxom, chirpy, all candy and big jewelry. The record should also show that Randall Tuttle does an unexpectedly convincing Swedish masseur, not to mention a robust drunken Shriner. And Van Reenen, whose snappy wryness I've come to relish over many of her roles, is in prime form; I'd watch the whole three acts again just to revel in her Stella's sharp, no-nonsense cynicism. The set of her mouth, so often puckered to the side in a smirk of disapprobation, suggests not just that Stella constantly holds a figurative wedge of lemon in there, but that she particularly enjoys the taste of it.

Finally, the arc of Brann's young playwright Peter over the course of these few hours — from naive to world-wise — is an important one: Hart ultimately presents an homage to the birth not just of one show to a stage, but of a playwright into a long theatrical life, and Brann draws it with both charm and fire. No business like it, and the Good Theater's radiant, witty, affectionate production embodies just what Hart sought to celebrate.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at

  Topics: Theater , Bob McCormack, Brian Allen, Brian P. Allen,  More more >
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