A play needs an engine, something that drives the action, keeping an audience engaged and entertained. In the slamming-door farce “Moon Over Buffalo,” playing at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, that propulsive energy should come in the form of sparks between the characters of George and Charlotte Hay, two aging stage actors circa 1953 with extravagantly dramatic personalities who clash constantly with others and each other.
But under the guidance of rookie director Lauren Whitley, this production’s engine surges, sputters and occasionally gives out completely. Interludes of laugh-out-loud hijinks alternate with moderately coherent confusion and the energy waxes and wanes precipitously, exposing the show’s shaky dramatic foundation.
The problem largely lies in the mismatch of Thomas Eichler and Kathy Northrop Parker as George and Charlotte. The characters were rising Broadway stars in the 1940s, but they eschewed opportunities to cross over to movies or television. Now they toil away doing dreadful shows in regional haunts such as Buffalo. Parker plays Charlotte loud and broad while Eichler too often underprojects or misses the mark on his rejoinders. In a play where the Hayses’ love for each other must be as palpable as their frustrations, they seem in sync only sporadically.
The production gets a boost from an accomplished supporting cast. A delightful Meg Carnahan portrays the Hayses’ daughter, Rosalind, who’s traded the acting life for a career in advertising and who brings her new fiance, star-struck weatherman Howard (Aza Raine), to meet the folks. But on the day of her visit, the usual theater-company madness gets kicked into overdrive when Frank Capra calls to say he’s considering George for a part in a movie and is on his way to Buffalo to see him perform.
The madcap action ultimately encompasses a rich lawyer infatuated with Charlotte (Jim Dyk), a young starlet recently impregnated by George (Brandy Sutherland) and Charlotte’s nearly deaf grandmother (Mollie Ort). Rosalind also gets thrown into close quarters with her former flame, company manager Paul (Travis Williams), setting up a romantic quadrilateral of sorts late in the show.
Carnahan’s Roz pinballs through the first act’s scenes but really brings her comic prowess to the fore in the second-act centerpiece, the company’s staging of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” where Roz has to cover for her drunken father. Williams’ earnest appeal creates a nice chemistry with Carnahan, but it’s Raine who delivers a pitch-perfect performance as an innocent lost in the fun house, milking the maximum laughter possible from his relatively small role.
Set designers Kent Walker and Cody Clarke have provided a solid array of doors that get consummately slammed throughout the show but otherwise adorn the stage in generic backstage shabbiness. Alan Armstrong’s lighting design is straightforward and barely changes to indicate when the play within a play takes place. A few of costume designer Alison Eichler’s accents smack of the 1950s but little else in the production does.
“Moon Over Buffalo” was a vehicle for Carol Burnett in 1995, marking her return to Broadway after 30 years, and you can imagine her and co-star Philip Bosco getting a lot of mileage out of this randy farce. But the vehicle’s engine isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. S
“Moon Over Buffalo” runs through April 2 at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, 319 N. Wilkinson Road. Visit cattheatre.com for tickets and information.