Shooting the moon
Act Too players take on Ken Ludwig comedic farce

Freddy McDaniel, who plays George Hay in the Durango Act Too Players' production of "Moon Over Buffalo," wields his sword in a scene where he depicts Cyrano de Bergerac.Review: ‘Moon Over Buffalo’

Durango Act Too Players kicks off its fall season Friday with a riotous, action-filled yet sometimes-uneven production of American playwright Ken Ludwig’s backstage farce, “Moon Over Buffalo.”

The comedy, set in Buffalo, N.Y., is about a dried-up, aging acting couple struggling to keep their repertory company afloat in the 1950s, when the arrival of television threatened live stage entertainment. Hoping to stave off their own obsolescence, George Hay (Freddy McDaniel) and his wife, Charlotte (Wendy Ludgewait), take their company, The House of Usher Repertory Theater (an oblique reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”) on the road.

George and Charlotte hardly have a clue that they are past their time as actors and should turn over the stage to younger thespians. After years of futile attempts to break into big-time show business, the true meltdown begins when they hear that “It’s a Wonderful Life” director Frank Capra is planning to attend one of their shows in Buffalo, allegedly to consider casting George in a sequel to “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

Of course, imaginations run wild, and the journey toward imminent disaster picks up speed and comes crashing to an end backstage on the night of Capra’s purported attendance. The comedy unfolds when philandering George’s indiscretions catch up with him –as does the news that the company’s young talentless actress, Eileen (Stephanie Ramsey), is pregnant. This goads Charlotte’s nearly deaf mother, Ethel (Shelly Hartney), to unleash her swift and biting tongue on George. They have the proverbial in-law relationship – he calls her Quasimodo; she calls him Mr. Potato Head.

Meanwhile, attention-starved Charlotte is swept away by glib lawyer Richard (David Wylie), who wants her to run away with him so he can give her the life he thinks she deserves. Richard is the only one in the lot who seems to have an ounce of class (though McDaniel’s Gold Toe socks add a touch of class to George’s character, whether or not intentional, since it was some 20 years past the Great Depression).

(from left to right) - Terry Shellnut (Paul), Madde Stager (Rosalind) and Wendy Ludgewait (Charlotte Hay) scramble to bring a drunk Freddy McDaniel (George Hay) to his wits so he can go on stage to do his scenes.  -  Photos by Jamie MorehartTo add to the mix, Charlotte and George’s daughter Rosalind (Madde Stager) arrives backstage with her weatherman fiancE9, Howard (Brett Stevens), a star-struck but square nut who can’t understand the embarrassment company actors have about touring in no-good Buffalo (“It’s Scranton without the charm,” he claims). Howard is ignored for the most part but is eventually mistaken to be Capra.

Not until the second act does Ludwig’s sentimental script begin to roll. And when it does, “Moon Over Buffalo” has all the trademarks of a farce – misunderstandings, melodrama and mayhem. Actors slam doors, fall down and drop trousers. During dress rehearsal, the cast universally had the energy to create a frenetic pace that is key in the world of farce. But that energy would have been better preserved for the latter part of the play, when the scenes and one-liners need to keep the laughter rolling. Too early in the play do the actors ramp up the pace, which ultimately muddies the transition into the climax and camouflages the major subplot with Rosalind and Howard.

McDaniel’s acting, particularly his dead-on yet prolonged drunk scene, carries the play. And it should. After all, George Hay is the one who is responsible for the messy incidences. McDaniel is at ease in a role rife with physical moves, not once appearing reluctant to give it his all. The hilarious pushing and pulling between him and Terry Shellnut, who nicely plays rep company manager, Paul, comes across as natural and genuine, not forced and uncomfortable – especially since you’re expecting McDaniel to lose his boxers as he’s being yanked around by a sober man larger than himself. Thankfully, he doesn’t.

Ludgewait and McDaniel never really hit it off as a believable couple, though that may be because Ludwig intended them to be an ill-fitted match. Either way, it works. Charlotte yearns for a glamorous Hollywood life and will take the first offer, which is why she packs her bags to go with Richard. She has given up on George, even if he is a self-declared hack. Ludgewait plays her role properly with the desperation of a woman who has never been farther from stardom. It is Ludgewait who delivers the melodramatic storm so important to the play. She also compliments Stager’s acting, making it believable that they are mother and daughter – never satisfied but too weak to figure out how to fix that.

Wylie (lawyer Richard) and Ramsey (pregnant Eileen) deliver near-grand character performances. Wylie’s calmness in his role adds just the right touch of smoothness to a slightly arrogant lawyer who really believes he can get what he wants. To round out the success of the production, you’d wish he and Ramsey had bigger roles in this production. Eventually, the same is true for Hartney, who warms to her task as the curmudgeonly mother-in-law and comes up with consistent acting. She shoots off her one-liners (barking to George about his acting, “I’ve seen more talent in a dog show”) with adequate setup so that the audience doesn’t miss them.

Director Karen Wylie, a 20-year Durango theater veteran, has worked mostly with musicals put on by Durango Lively Arts. This is her first time directing a comedy. On balance, her cast plays the material for all it’s worth – and then some. Minus the uneven pacing, Wylie guides the cast with the enthusiasm that enables each member to fully express him or herself. It all leads to an entertaining romp through the perils of egos, show business and desperation – something local audiences will appreciate and feel worth the price of admission.





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