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Theater Review

Solid Cast Shines in Comic 'Moon Over Buffalo'

September 23, 1997|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ah, Charlotte. She may have walked out on her husband, but still he fondly remembers "her dulcet voice cutting through the night like an air raid siren."

This description of flamboyant actress Charlotte Hay is taken straight from the script of Ken Ludwig's backstage farce "Moon Over Buffalo." With such explicit directions, it must have been a snap to cast Charlotte at the Pasadena Playhouse.

JoAnne Worley, of course.

Sure, Carol Burnett also comes to mind--she created the role on Broadway. But in the big-mouth brigade, Worley is a general. Watching Worley, and listening to her, might lead you to think the role was hers from the start.

The play might be titled "Charlotte's Web," if the title weren't taken. Not that Charlotte drives the plot--but the distinctive personality of the actress who plays her is clearly the drawing card, much more than the script itself.

"Moon Over Buffalo" uses old gags and familiar comic types with considerable assurance, if not complete credibility. Under Glenn Casale's direction, the laughs are solid and frequent. But they don't approach the helpless, laugh-till-you-cry quality of the very best farces--for example, Alan Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves" (recently seen at South Coast Repertory).

The laughter in "Moon Over Buffalo" is directed at those crazy folks up on the stage instead of people who are recognizably like you and me. Still, good laughs are not to be sneezed at.

Worley and Richard Roat play long-married "minor royalty" of the theater who are still touring repertory in 1953, just as TV is taking over their audience. They're at an aging backstage (designed by Gary Wissmann) in Buffalo. It's "Private Lives" this afternoon and "Cyrano de Bergerac" tonight--or is it the other way around?

They would rather be in Hollywood, where Ronald Colman and Greer Garson are shooting a Frank Capra film that should have been theirs, or so they believe.

Their daughter (Jennifer Gordon) recently quit the family business--also leaving her former boyfriend and company manager (Neil Nash)--in order to seek a more stable life offstage with a TV weatherman (Billy Van Zandt).

The royal couple are at a possible turning point in their own relationship--Charlotte suspects George of fooling around with the ingenue (Khrystyne Haje), and the evidence is rather damning. Charlotte has her own potential lover, the family's attorney (Tom Knickerbocker), waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, Charlotte's hard-of-hearing mother (Gloria Dorson), who handles the costumes, keeps mending Cyrano's trousers only to see them again torn apart.

But wait--there has been an accident in Hollywood, and Capra may need to replace Colman. The director is rumored to be flying to Buffalo this very day to check out the Hays possibilities. Can the family keep its act together long enough to impress the great man?

Ludwig ordered almost the whole catalog of backstage farce shtick: deaf jokes, spiked coffee, flying wigs, mistaken identities, mistaken sexual orientations, slamming doors, a drunken monologue and of course the actor's nightmare come true--being on stage in the wrong play.

Technically, Roat is at the center of the action even more than Worley. His character, George, has more at stake than anyone else. Roat has the proper look of a formerly handsome matinee idol who can feel "formerly" edging out the "handsome" within his own self-image. He gets a lot of laughs, though there isn't anything inherently, unforgettably funny about him, as there is with Worley.

She can make the audience roar over the line, "Hello, George." Her flirtatious purrs are as rich as her fierce snarls. She wears several colorful (but uncredited) outfits with utter confidence and blithe disregard for whether people think she looks funny in them. "It's a gift to be that insane," George says, and we can only nod. Worley's over the top in the same way the moon rises over Buffalo--it's part of nature.

Van Zandt is amusingly gawky and befuddled as the outsider who's entering the mystical kingdom of the thea-tuh for the first time. The rest of the supporting cast makes it look easy with only occasional exceptions.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Moon Over Buffalo," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours.

JoAnne Worley: Charlotte Hay

Richard Roat: George Hay

Gloria Dorson: Ethel

Jennifer Gordon: Rosalind

Billy Van Zandt: Howard

Khrystyne Haje: Eileen

Neil Nash: Paul

Tom KnickerbockerRichard Maynard

By Ken Ludwig. Directed by Glenn Casale. Sets by Gary Wissmann. Lights by Kevin Mahan. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Jill Johnson Gold.

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