Monday, September 7, 2015

Heigh-Ho, the Glamourous Life: Light Up the Sky at the Shaw

Charlie Gallant, Claire Jullien and Thom Marriott in Light Up the Sky at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

Light Up the Sky is one of Moss Hart’s solo comic efforts; he wrote it in 1948, long after his collaboration with George S. Kaufman had petered out. It’s about the Boston tryout of a debut play by a young greenhorn named Peter Sloan, the only person involved in the project who isn’t a seasoned veteran. The narcissistic star, Irene Livingston, the lachrymose director, Carleton Fitzgerald, and the cutthroat producer, Sidney Black, have all worked together before, but they’ve been at their best for some reason during rehearsals for Sloan’s show, a post-apocalyptic allegory that opens in the ruins of Radio City Music Hall. Consequently Peter has been deluded into thinking that they’re pure-hearted professionals who think with their hearts and sacrifice themselves for their art. However, when the opening-night audience laughs at the seriousness of their combined efforts, they revert to form, and Sloan, the most vulnerable of them, becomes their pet punching bag.

It’s a very entertaining show-biz comedy, but schizoid. One of the characters is a famous playwright named Owen Turner who has come up from New York in the hopes of enjoying someone else’s opening-night miseries; he’s hopeful that the play will be a disaster and give him something to dish. He’s Addison DeWitt from All About Eve, only as a writer rather than a critic (and Joseph L. Mankiewicz wouldn’t write that particular screenplay for another two years). But then abruptly, at the end of act two, he shows up in Irene’s suite at the Ritz-Carlton, where the whole play takes place, humbled by what he’s just seen and convinced that Sloan is the new hope of the American theatre. Then the reviews come out, and though they admit that the play has kinks that still need to be worked out, they’re pulsing with enthusiasm. Hart steals the surprise-rave-notices scene from himself and Kaufman, but in Once in a Lifetime, which they wrote nearly two decades earlier, the joke is that the critics have been credulous enough to confuse a lot of ridiculous mistakes by a rube “film supervisor” for the touches of a master. In Light Up the Sky it’s the audience (which turns out to be stuffed with drunken Shriners) that are the dolts, not the critics, and this proto-Addison DeWItt suddenly becomes the voice of Moss Hart, proselytizing for the idealism of the young Midwestern scribe. And we’re suddenly supposed to believe that the allegory that Hart has been sending up – and that sounds risible – is a na├»ve masterpiece.

But if Light Up the Sky isn’t exactly Once in a Lifetime, it’s full of juicy one-liners and enjoyably over-the-top personalities. And since it doesn’t get revived very often, I was happy to see Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival include it in its 2015 season, and I had a fine time watching Blair Williams’ production. This kind of play poses an unusual challenge for the Shaw, because it’s written for showy Broadway character actors, and as much as I admire many of the members of the Shaw ensemble, the company style is famously understated. When Williamstown mounted the comedy fifteen years ago, Jessica Hecht played Irene, Eric Stoltz played Peter, and Ron Rifkin was Sidney, a role that had been created by Sam Levene, the original Nathan Detroit of Guys and Dolls. At the Shaw, Irene is Claire Jullien, Charlie Gallant is Peter and Thom Marriott is Sidney, and they’re not really right for those parts; nor is Steven Sutcliffe for Carleton. Implausibly, though, their buoyant spirits and game energy (and the fact that all four are good actors) triumph over the miscasting. Perhaps that’s not as much the case with Gallant, in a role that calls for a young Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, but he strives valiantly, and he’s not bad.

Kelli Fox, Shawn Wright and Laurie Paton in Light Up the Sky at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

Graeme Somerville, as Owen Turner, has a tougher row to hoe, since the character is at the core of what’s self-contradictory in the play. He gets through act one in high style and keeps his dignity for acts two and three, but dignity is out of place in this sort of play. (Hart really should have known better.) And there are a couple of casting mistakes that should have been rectified – Kelly Wong as Irene’s lame-duck stockbroker husband, Tyler Rayburn (his acting is terrible) and a pair of young performers as the Shriners, who don’t make sense unless they’re middle-aged. But they’re supernumeraries; as the only Shriner whom Hart showcases, an earnest theatre lover named William H. Gallegher, Shawn Wright is very funny. And Laurie Paton does wonders with the role of Stella, Irene’s no-nonsense mother, who is an early harbinger of opening-night doom because she snuck into the strictly private final dress rehearsal dressed as a charlady so she could get an early peek at the proceedings. Stella and Frances Black, Sidney’s wife, an ice-skating star, who are gin-rummy buddies, are the hard-boiled dame roles. Kelli Fox normally plays Frances, but the night I saw the show Fiona Byrne stepped in for her, and she and Paton made a feisty team. (Kate Besworth covered Byrne in the thankless role of the secretary, Miss Lowell.)

The designers appear to have been as happily engaged in the process as the actors. William Schmuck’s set works in tandem with the projections by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson to home in on Irene’s suite from an exterior view of the venerable Boston hotel, and there’s a nifty moment at the top of act three when what we see through the windows is the besotted Shriner bash, until the “camera” corrects itself and races up to the right room. Shmuck’s costumes and Louise Guinand’s lighting add hints of stylization; I especially liked the scarlet number Jullien wears in act two, when she makes a disheartened entrance with a bouquet of balloons. Having opted to put Light Up the Sky on the schedule this summer, the production makes a true virtue of necessity.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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