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THEATER REVIEW : 'Light Up the Sky' Scores a Bull's-Eye

July 08, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The extravagant personalities of the theater world have always been a natural target for comedy about human excess--high-strung directors, prima donna performers and loud but loaded producers need little embellishment to provide onstage amusement.

The associated pitfall is getting bogged down with too many in-jokes to appeal to any audience but fellow theater people.

Playwright Moss Hart was ideally positioned to fully exploit the theater world's comic potential and avoid the self-referential trap. A distinguished and disciplined author and director, Hart had a lifelong experience in the theater, directing Broadway hits like "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," writing original plays and screenplays, and collaborating as a writer numerous times with one of his era's greatest comic writers, George S. Kaufman.

Yet all his experience with show business never clouded Hart's perspective as a bewildered, sometimes outraged, and always amused observer of those around him.

From that perspective he created his 1948 play, "Light Up the Sky," which proves a charming and well-produced summer revival in the capable hands of Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theatre Company.

Centered around that most nerve-racking of Broadway rituals--opening night for an out-of-town tryout--"Light Up the Sky" follows the roller-coaster emotions of an untested play's star, director and backers in their headquarters at the Chicago Ritz-Carlton hotel.

"Take my advice and see this one on an empty stomach," sums up Stella (Gretchen Evans), the acerbic mother of the show's leading lady as she pours herself a stiff shot of gin.

In a continually delightful performance, Evans' Stella is a whirlwind of barbed insults, described by the director (David Morris) as "a breath of foul air."

Unfortunately, the pompous, histrionic director has more than just Stella to contend with. His star (Amelia Laurenson) is a pampered, willful egomaniac who treats him with contempt. And the show's uncouth producer (Charles De L'Arbre) and his brassy wife Frances (Alison Coutts) lumber about with the lack of finesse that goes with culture climbers without a clue.

"Did you read this play before you agreed to produce it?" asks Stella at one point.

"Who reads?" comes Frances' straight-faced reply.

Caught up in the increasingly frenzied activity is young first-time playwright Peter Sloan (Jason McComb), whose initial naivete soon gives way to a sadder but wiser realization of the exploitation he's received from these people.

From the sidelines, seasoned playwright Owen Turner (Robert Langenbucher) offers sardonic commentary about a process he's seen many times (clearly he's a direct line to the author Hart's voice).

But it's in Peter's rite of passage that Hart transcends the narrow world of the theater to make a statement about people in general, and the extent to which we can and can't rely on one another.

Director Robert G. Weiss has staged the piece not only with admirable comic flair but also with sensitivity to Hart's gentle human truths.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Light Up The Sky," performed through Aug. 29 at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12-16. Call (805) 962-8606 for reservations or further information.

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