It's a Farcical Life

Gavin MacLeod, erstwhile captain of the Love Boat, sails blithely through Moon over Buffalo with an erect rubber nose. He's playing Cyrano de Bergerac. Or rather he's playing an actor playing Cyrano in Ken Ludwig's 1995 Broadway hit, a comedy about a troupe of washed-up actors in 1953 who, by botching a performance for visiting movie director Frank Capra, nearly ruin their last chance to get back into the big time.

Does it matter that MacLeod is not the best actor in the touring production of this show, which is cruising through South Florida for the next month as part of the MasterCard Broadway Series? It all depends on whether you've come to see him reprise the antics of Captain Stubing, not to mention those of Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or whether you'd go see the three-year-old farce regardless. (The Broadway premiere starred Philip Bosco and Carol Burnett, two strong draws no matter how flimsy the vehicle.)

The Broadway Series is banking on the first proposition. But though MacLeod's bio fills an entire page of the Playbill -- his theater credits range from a Broadway debut with Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzara in A Hatful of Rain three decades ago to a production of Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor in Kansas City last summer -- the actor's following is largely made up of sitcom fans. (Nothing wrong with that. I'm a Murray Slaughter groupie myself.) Chances are, though, if you're more a theater junkie than a MacLeod watcher, you may wish the show had more marquee appeal than that of a onetime TV favorite.

As hybrid TV-theater actors go, MacLeod is no Estelle Parsons, whose foray to the small screen, as Roseanne Conner's mom on Roseanne, was seamless and brilliant. MacLeod isn't that gifted. He's not even a Carol Burnett, whose comic inventiveness in small sketches overwhelms whatever shortcomings she may have in more substantial works. MacLeod does, however, have enough live theater experience that he isn't stuck, as many television actors are when they go onstage, trying to figure out how to make it through lengthy scenes. (On the tube, performers are only in front of the camera for short one- or two-minute segments.) I once watched Daniel J. Travanti (Capt. Frank Furillo on Hill Street Blues) perform in a Eugene O'Neill play that clearly challenged the limits of his TV-acting technique and left those of us in the audience stunned that he'd ever been a star in any format.

MacLeod, on the other hand, is a midrange actor, neither embarrassing to the profession nor particularly inspiring to the audience. In that sense he's well cast as George Hay, one member of a has-been team of actors who now find themselves touring smaller cities. MacLeod's costar Nancy Marvy, on the other hand, a Minneapolis actress who possesses some of Carol Burnett's vocal pyrotechnics, is twice as believable as part of a duo that at one time had appeal. As the play opens we learn that George has recently lost out on the starring role in Frank Capra's The Scarlet Pimpernel. The part went to Ronald Colman, but the movie, for reasons we come to find out, never actually got made. It is not difficult to imagine that Colman was Capra's first choice. If I were casting the film, however, I'd happily take Marvy as the female lead.

Spurned by Hollywood but still pining for their short-lived embrace by Broadway, George and Charlotte are now putting on a double bill in Buffalo featuring Cyrano and Private Lives. Why these two plays? In part the answer lies in the farcical structure of Ludwig's madcap comedy, which generates mixups ranging from mistaken identities to confusion among the characters as to which play it is they are actually putting on. Is there anything as funny as an actor dressed in a costume from Cyrano showing up onstage in the Noël Coward vehicle? Not if you're Ken Ludwig, apparently.

The playwright's 1989 Broadway farce Lend Me a Tenor is propelled by similar shenanigans, though with less predictability and more original wit. Here's a typical example of dialogue from this play:

"What do you think of Buffalo?"
"I hate it. If it weren't named for an animal, it wouldn't have anything going for it."

What Ludwig does best is move characters around the stage and in and out of each other's paths with hypnotic frequency. His antics are entertaining in small doses, but because his farces are so tightly constructed, hardly anything happens in Moon over Buffalo that can't be mapped out by an experienced theatergoer ten minutes into the first act. This is especially true if you remember the, uh, Chekhovian rule of comedy that dictates that any oddball object -- say, a costume from the film bio of Gen. George Patton -- that shows up in Act One should strategically resurface in Act Two.

Among the complications: Rosalind, the daughter of George and Charlotte, arrives in Buffalo with her new fiance Howard, a TV weatherman, in tow. Unbeknownst to Rosalind, her old beau Paul is also on the tour. Rosalind had previously ditched Paul as well as the acting profession in favor of a "normal" life. Grandmother Ethel is the company's hard-of-hearing costume manager, but the character's true purpose is to misconstrue communications and, at one crucial point, mistake Howard for Frank Capra. Indeed, the great film director has called to say he is coming to see the Hays perform because, it turns out, he still needs actors for The Scarlet Pimpernel.

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