Miles Boucher as Paul, Brent Griffith as George Hay in "Moon Over Buffalo."

Do Shuffle Off To 'Buffalo'

By Martin F. Kohn

Think of Ken Ludwig's comedy "Moon Over Buffalo" as "Cyrano de Bergerac" meets "Private Lives." Actually, in its second act "Moon Over Buffalo" literally is "Cyrano de Bergerac" meets "Private Lives" as a hilariously confused family repertory company tries to impress a visitor from Hollywood.

The family troupe may not impress, but Hilberry Theatre's actors certainly do in Blair Anderson's production of "Moon Over Buffalo." Ludwig's 1995 play shows promise in Act One and delivers big-time in Act Two as situations launched with subtlety (or not) land with whatever the opposite of subtlety is.

In the venerable genre of backstage plays, "Moon Over Buffalo" falls somewhere off the coast of "Noises Off" and headed in the general direction of the musical "Kiss Me, Kate." As in "Noises Off," the physical farce backstage becomes comical chaos onstage; as in "Kiss Me, Kate," romantic complications abound. (Note that in all three works the theatrical troupes are on tour, never at home, which compounds the sense of things not being quite right.)

The place is the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y. The time is 1953. George and Charlotte Hay (Brent Griffith and Bevin Bell-Hall), "the second couple of the theatre," are the stars and owners of a traveling troupe on its way down. Once the toast of Broadway (they even made a few movies), they are hoping for one more big break. Madly in love, they both have other romantic interests: George in a young actress with the company (Sarah Hawkins Moan), Charlotte in the company's lawyer (Brandy Joe Plambeck).

Meanwhile, George and Charlotte's daughter, Rosalind (Danielle Cochrane), who gave up the insanity of the theater for a stable job in advertising, has come by to introduce her new fiance, Howard (Brandon Grantz), to her parents and, tangentially, to her old fiance, Paul (Miles Boucher), an actor and the troupe's manager. Add to the mix Charlotte's mother, Ethel (Megan Barbour), founder of this theatrical dynasty, now relegated to backstage chores and hard of hearing.

What could possibly go wrong?

With the Hays and their gang, a great deal. With Anderson's production, very little. Effective farce requires ample (but invisible) order and discipline, and this ensemble has it in abundance. Although Ludwig's script contains its share of funny lines - the troupe's five-actor abridgement of "Cyrano" is referred to as "sort of the one-nostril version" - much of its humor comes from ingenious situations and beautifully executed physical comedy.

The actors who play actors revel in the opportunity to ham it up old-school. Barbour, as matriarch Ethel, sets the tone with stylized recitations backstage as the play opens. When Rosalind must perform as an emergency fill-in in "Private Lives," Cochrane nicely conjures Katharine Hepburn delivering Noel Coward's arch lines.

As a very drunk George, Griffith lithely stumbles and blithely bungles. Bell-Hall as the often exasperated Charlotte calls upon a virtual repertory company of faces to make and stances to take.

This is one of those rare plays whose second act is better than its first and - even rarer - one of those productions that might legitimately claim to be a laugh riot.

' Moon Over Buffalo'

Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. 8 p.m. Feb. 22, 27, 28, March 1, 27-29, April 3-5 and 2 p.m. Feb. 26 & March 29. 2 hours, 20 minutes. $12-30. 313-577-2972.

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