There ought to be an expiration date on plays, as there is on rolls of film. Then producers would know which ones are safe to revive, and which just don't register anymore.
Judging from Sunday night's performance at the Ahmanson, Moss Hart's "Light Up the Sky" (1948) has lost its potency. There was a time when this was considered the last word in sophisticated backstage comedy, but now it plays like a rickety, overlong 1940s script with a few good laughs and no credibility at all.
It concerns a play trying out in Boston. The hero (Steven Culp) is the earnest young man who wrote the play, which concerns the atomic bomb. He had always heard that theater folk were monsters, but these people are so gosh-darned nice that they're almost family.
Until opening night, when it appears that the play is a dud. The family (producer Peter Falk, star Carrie Nye, director Fritz Weaver) falls onto each other with knives--and onto our playwright, for having gotten them into this mess. But then come the reviews. . . .
One of the weirdest gaps in the story is that everybody in this band of supposedly case-hardened show-biz veterans appears to have forgotten that there were going to be reviews at all. It's as if Hart couldn't get out of his story except by falsifying a basic element in it.
Elsewhere (as in a painfully extended sequence about a bunch of drunken Shriners saying good night in the hall), it's evident that he's padding the story to fill out three acts. A well-made play, it isn't.
Or much of a satirical study. Hart wrote this one without Kaufman (who was working on something of his own called "Bravo" at the time), and we miss the latter's bile. The star is one of those self-struck First Ladies of the American Stage, who were endemic in the 1940s. Kaufman would have demolished her. Hart takes a few mild shots (her bio is to be called "With a Bow to the Moon") but presents her as rather a darling, really. Carrie Nye would like to do more with the role, but the lines aren't there.
Next to "All About Eve," this is a fairly wimpish look at theater folk. The only tough lines, and there are some good ones, come from the star's mother, played well enough by Nancy Marchand, and from the producer's ice-skater wife, played not at all well by Deborah Rush. (Is that a Texas accent or a Brooklyn one?)
Oddly, the most charming characters are two middle-aged gents who don't have anything to do with the theater--Burt Edwards as Nye's stockbroker husband and Bill McCutcheon as a cherubic Shriner who is dying to put some money in a show. Even this promising development fizzles out, though, as we see that the character's real function is to bring in the morning papers. In the best Broadway comedies it all comes together at the end. Here, it's all forced together.
Ellis Rabb's 1967 revival of "You Can't Take It With You" made us see that play as an American classic, played with care by a real ensemble. Rabb's staging of "Light Up the Sky" looks like summer stock, with each character coming down front to do his number (Weaver's plummy director, Peter Falk's dese-and-dose producer, Barry Nelson's tolerant older playwright) and then retreating to the margins of Douglas Schmidt's set. It's the first time I've ever seen a hotel-room set with a rate card on the door. Witty touch.
For the record, the theater had to be vacated Sunday night between the first and second acts, while sheriff's deputies searched the house for a bomb.
'LIGHT UP THE SKY' A revival of Moss Hart's play, presented by Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson. Director Ellis Rabb. Setting Douglas W. Schmidt. Costumes Ann Roth. Lighting James Tilton. Casting Slater/Willet. Production stage manager Barbara-Mae Willis. With Peter Falk, Nancy Marchand, Barry Nelson, Fritz Weaver, Carrie Nye, Deborah Rush, Steven Culp, Patricia Kilgarriff, Burt Edwards, Bill McCutcheon, Richard Fancy, David Bailey, Tim Loughrin, Lane Brinkley, Catherine Cooper. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., with matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Closes April 25. Tickets $10-$33. 135 N. Grand Ave. (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.