There are three things that are difficult to get out of one’s mind when watching Theatre Knoxville Downtown’s production of Ken Ludwig’s 1995 comic play “Moon Over Buffalo,” playing until Jan. 21, at its current location, 319 N. Gay St.
The first is this is in-your-face comedy. Not the confrontational type of a hard slap on your cheek. But the up-close kind in which everything takes place within 20 feet of the noses of everyone on the back row of the house that seats only 56 and within 10 feet of the front row. There’s no need for exaggerated expressions because everyone, including Rebecca Gomex’s Rosalind Hay, the daughter who happens to come home at just the right time, is close enough to count eyelashes.
Second, it’s the kind of madcap comedy that simultaneously feels completely ridiculous and real enough that it could actually happen. Just the sort of stuff that the Carol Burnett Show did so brilliantly. That’s more than mere coincidence, because Ludwig wrote the play for Burnett’s return to Broadway after a 30-year absence.
Third, the gifted cast in this production, under the direction of Courtney Woolard, willingly gets close enough to hang their toes over the precipice of overacting, but keeping their heels solidly planted on firm ground. It’s what gives this play both the sense of being foolhardy and a case of it’s just the neighbors next door acting out again.
Nowhere is this risk more evident than in Joseph Jaynes’ drunken monologue, as George Hay in Act II, when he stumbles all over the stage and slurs his boozed speech enough to come across as smashed, but still understood.
Set in 1953, the play is about George and Charlotte Hay, aging actors who have always thought they were better than their lot of a life of struggling to keep their dream in the theater alive by doing repertory in theatrical backwaters – the Erlanger Theater in Buffalo when the lights go up.
Their company retinue includes Ethel, Charlotte Hay’s mother, convincingly played by Barbara “Pook” Pfaffe, who is part stage-hand, part production assistant and deaf enough to respond to comments she mishears with hilarious retorts; Rosalind Hay, George and Charlotte’s daughter who used to be part of the company, but moved on to another life and fell in love with Howard, a weatherman whom she has brought home to meet her family before she and Howard get married.
Also look for Paul Singer, reservedly played by David Snow, who is the company manager and Rosalind’s former boyfriend; Howard, Rosalind’s fiancé, played by Chad Wood, with a sense of mischief he never quite lets go and a sense of terror over what sort of mess he has gotten into; Eileen, played with delight by Debi Weathers, who plays an assortment of characters in the Hays’ productions, when she isn’t jumping into the sack with George and ending up more than a little pregnant; and Richard Maynard, the Hays’ attorney, played by Bill Householder, with his eyes fixed on Charlotte and promises to take her away to a life of luxury.
Charlotte Hay, skillfully played by veteran Staci Swedeen, is the hub around whom all of the characters and their stories revolve. She is the daughter, mother, discarded wife, imagined lover, broker and other woman to everyone else, but Howard, whom she mistakes for Frank Capra. It’s Charlotte, more than George, who sees herself above the title in Hollywood stardom. The interaction between her and Howard, who is both charmed and thoroughly confused by the reception he gets from her, are some of the best moments of the play. Swedeen would make Burnett proud.
The tight set, with two doors leading to the street and two dressing room doors, all in a row at the back of the stage, is furnished with a chaise lounge on one side and a desk, telephone and bulletin board across the stage. The characters go in and out of the doors so often, they are sort of characters of their own. The chaise lounge plays a role in a moment involving closets that’s just too funny to give away in a review.
When “Moon over Buffalo” opens, the Hays’ company is rehearsing a scene from “Cyrano De Bergerac,” which they rotate with “Private Lives.” Between dashing off their lines, George and Charlotte grumble about missed Hollywood opportunities that would have made them perfect for Frank Capra’s swashbuckling “Scarlet Pimpernel” that Capra has begun filming.
Enter Eileen, with her bombshell announcement that sends George into a drunken tailspin, not to mention general family chaos that gives Richard the opening to sweep Charlotte away after she learns George has done more with his pants’ zipper than change clothes.
Then comes word that Capra’s stars have suffered mishaps and he is on the hunt for replacements. He’s on his way to Buffalo to see their matinee. The problem is George can’t be found. When he does show up, he’s riding a high kite over Buffalo’s moon.
Finally, the cast prepares to perform “Private Lives.” Except George comes on stage with his Cyrano nose, sword and cape.
See the play to learn what happens. It’s well worth 15 bucks. “Moon Over Buffalo” runs through Jan. 21. Show time is 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. Sunday matinees. There were only a few empty seats the night I saw it. Info: 865-544-1999 or http://theatreknoxville.com.