There are writers who will surprise you with the diversity of their talents – such as being able to write tragedies that make your soul ache and then turn around and write something ludicrous and sophomorically funny for Johnny Knoxville to star in. Then, there are those who have their set formula and keep the date that brought them to the dance with little deviation.
Playwright Moss Hart generally followed a very specific style with his plays. The stories would feature obscure and outlandish characters aplenty. At the middle of the chaos would be the comedy straight man who stands out due to their complete and utter whitewashed normalcy. He tended to follow this formula whether writing by himself or with a partner.
You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner are Hart’s two most well-known writing ventures. Both were written in partnership with George S. Kaufman. You Can’t Take It With You won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for drama and inspired an Oscar-winning film adaptation.
The Resident Theatre at Edge of the Wood now presents Light Up the Sky, a Moss Hart comedy that originally premiered on Broadway in 1948. That Broadway mounting was, in fact, directed by Hart himself.
Interestingly, the way Hart originally scripted the play was a bit darker and less in line with his normal recipe for success. However, when this was pointed out by a theater critic during out-of-town tryouts of the material, Hart rewrote good portions of the play to be more comedic.
The story is an ode to theater people – the writers, producers, and temperamental stars that make playing pretend into an art form.
It is in the hours leading up to the first out of town tryout of a Broadway-bound production on a new play: The Time is Now starring famous actress Irene Livingston (inspired by the real-life actress Gertrude Lawrence). Expectations and spirits are high.
On hand at the Ritz-Carlton hotel luxury suite of Livingston are her husband Tyler Rayburn, her mother Stella Livingston, first time playwright Peter Sloan, director Carlton Fitzgerald, investors Sidney and Frances Black, longtime theater pro Owen Turner, and author Nan Lowell who is ghost writing the actress’ memoir.
CALL IT AN ALLEGORY
Act II finds the cast of characters a little less enthusiastic. In fact, spirits are tragically low, and tempers are dangerously high.
The first performance did not go well. The audience laughed where they were expected to be mesmerized by drama. Others left the theater before the show ended. And nobody, including the cast and investors, seems to know what the play is actually about.
Act III finds everyone’s emotional barometers flipped topsy-turvy yet again, as the players try to figure out how to exit this albatross and then realize they have no choice but to persevere and try to somehow continue on with the show in some way that will make money – even if they still don’t know what it’s actually about.
The Edge of the Wood Theatre cast features a wealth of heavy hitting talents who have graced the stages of Victory Garden Theater, Marriott Theatre, Oil Lamp Theater, iO Theater, and Goodman Theatre. They do more with the material than many actors would be capable of.
Molly Will plays the diva of the show, Irene Livingston. She is able to be aloof yet likeable. Janet Rourke, one of the co-founders of Edge of the Wood, is equally as good as the star’s rough around the edges mother Stella.
Herb Metzler cranks up the bluster factor to 10 with his interpretation of Sidney Black, a normally lucky investor whose luck looks like it has run out – to the tune of $300,000. Lisa Stran delightfully gives a bit of East-Coast attitude to the equally put out Mrs. Black.
Stephen Loch is right in his element playing Carelton Fitzgerald, the director of the Broadway-hopeful The Time is Now. Loch doesn’t chew the scenery, but he nibbles on it just enough to be grandly funny throughout.
EYE OF THE STORM
The straight man in this Hart comedy is young playwright Peter Sloan, played admirably by Skyler Tipton. In Act I, Sloan is brimming with pride as the play prepares to open. In Act II his demeanor changes drastically, as might be expected when the world is falling apart all around you.
Michael Lomenick as veteran playwright Owen Turner and Valen Lion as Miss Nan Lowell are both excellent in their roles. Sumit Saurabh is nice in multiple roles in his professional debut.
While the ensemble is strong overall, there are two performances that take the quality of the production to a whole different level.
Michael Bayler’s characterization of Wallstreet whiz and unlikely husband of actress Livingston is the kind of quirky and eccentric that you normally associate with the brilliance of actors like Crispin Glover. Every moment Bayler is on stage, the quality of the show goes up automatically. You could just watch him and ignore the rest of the action and remain entertained the whole night. It’s all in the details.
Packing the most impact possible into a small amount of stage time, Dakotah Brown absolutely steals the show in his appearance as Shriner William H. Gallegher. Brown’s enthusiastic, high-energy performance would make late Chicago comedy legends Chris Farley and John Belushi proud.
Director John Chambers has done an excellent job putting the pieces in place to create a really pleasant comedy that you don’t see done that often.
The scenic design by Michael Hanley and set decoration by Natasza Naczas gives the grand feeling of an authentic 1940’s upscale hotel suite. The theater company’s space may be small, but their sets are routinely exquisitely done.
Costume design is by Mark Burrows, lighting design is by Finley Wedge, sound design is by Tim Kwasny, and stage management is by Martin Mahoney. All are well done.
In addition to You Can’t Take It With You and other Broadway hits, Hart also achieved fame as a Tony-winning director and as the screenwriter of such classics as Gentleman’s Agreement, Hans Christian Anderson, and A Star is Born.
Light Up the Sky is not as well-known as some of Moss Hart’s creations, but with some truly great performances, Edge of the Wood makes it shine to its full potential.
Light Up the Sky plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:30 PM through April 8th. There is a special Understudy Performance on Thursday, April 6 at 7:30 PM.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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