Moss Hart affectionately skewers the world of the theater in his 1948 comedy Light Up The Sky, now being given a pitch-perfect revival by Open Fist Theatre under the crackerjack direction of Bjørn Johnson.
It’s opening night of the first out-of-town tryout of truck driver slash fledgling playwright Peter Sloan’s first opus, an allegory entitled The Time Is Now. In the living room of renowned stage star Irene Livingston’s suite at the plush Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston, the show people behind The Time Is Now are beginning to gather. One by one they enter—her secretary Miss Lowell, the play’s director Carleton Fitzgerald, chief investors Frances and Sidney Black, Irene’s playwright friend Owen Turner, her mother Stella, hubby Tyler Rayburn, and of course the young playwright himself.
Despite the excitement in the air, there is also fear of possible failure. Dressed as a charwoman, Stella has snuck into the theater during the final dress rehearsal, defying director Carleton’s strict “No Admittance” policy, and what she has to report is not encouraging, not encouraging at all.
Stella couldn’t make head nor tail of Peter’s play, and neither she fears will the audience be able to. What kind of play is it? she’s asked. Well, she heard someone call it an “allegory. It’s either an allegory, or the biggest joke ever played on the city of Boston.”
Will The Time Is Now survive what are sure to be scathing reviews from the Boston critics? Will the Blacks lose the $300,000 they’ve invested? (That’s over $2.5 million in today’s currency.) Will Irene develop psychosomatic laryngitis following audience boos? Will Peter return to his Midwest truck route, his tail between his legs?
These are the questions which are answered during Light Up The Sky’s delightful, screwball three acts. (Open Fist has wisely maintained the “classic” two intermissions of the Broadway original.)
Performances are so tiptop here that it’s impossible to pick a favorite, Hart’s script allowing each character to make an indelible impression from the theatrical entrance he gives them each.
Colin Campbell couldn’t be gayer as Carleton if his name were Gaylord G. Gayley from the spit curl on his forehead to the bird-feather-like hanky in his jacket pocket to the bright red socks that are surely his trademark. Of course in those days, he’d only be referred to as “flamboyant” or “theatrical.” Not a “confirmed bachelor,” however, as Carleton would seem to have a wife conveniently stashed off at home.
Andrea Syglowski channels Judy Holiday’s Billie Dawn as brassy ice skater turned nouveau riche Stella, making her entrance in a fire-engine red dress, fox stole, and foot-long feathers sticking out of her little black hat. Stella’s foghorn-voiced husband Sidney is brought to manic life by Benjamin Burdick, who makes Sidney into the love child of Nathan Lane and Jackie Gleason.
As Miss Lowell, Amanda Weier has the same period-perfect delivery that made her Dorothy Parker in The Room so memorable. Listen to the way she iterates “The literary world is my bailiwick.” It’s delicious.
Stealing every scene she’s in from a cast of scene-stealers is Barbara Schofield as Irene’s wise-cracking mother Stella, whose tipping advice to hotel guests is “Tell them a good joke. I haven’t tipped a bellboy in ten years!”
Classically handsome Dominic Spillane is the perfect fish-out-of-water as “from truck to typewriter” playwright Peter Sloan, and Kevin McCorkle does equally fine work as Irene’s longtime friend Owen. Richard Michael Knolla is a hoot and a half as Irene’s humorless businessman husband, who only speaks “twice a year, like when the slush melts.”
Finally, there’s the marvelous Laura Flanagan, elegant and poised, but with more than a dash of theatricality as stage legend Irene Livingston (think 30s/40s icon Gertrude Lawrence)—until things start to go wrong and Flanagan reveals a coarser Irene hiding under the sophisticated exterior.
Not to forget understudy Peter Abbay’s hilarious cameo as a profusely apologetic Shriner.
Kudos to director Johnson, who makes sure that his cast members are all on the same 1940s page, having watched numerous films of the era. They either affect the de rigueur “mid-Atlantic accent” of pre-Method film and stage actors. or the Brooklyn/Bronx delivery which was pretty much the only alternative at the time. Cast members shine not only when engaged in witty repartee, but also in their priceless reactions to whatever is happening around them.
Victoria Profitt has designed an elegant and richly detailed set which takes us back in time, as do A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s dazzling 1940s costumes. (Oh those ladies’ hats!) High marks also for Ellen Monocroussos’s lighting and Peter Carlstedt’s sound design. David Castellani’s props are period perfect with the exception of the anachronistic spiral phone cord which was not introduced until the 1950s.
Johnson reveals in his director’s note that he passed over obvious choices like You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came To Dinner in deciding upon Light Up The Sky as the Moss Hart play to revive. What a stroke of luck for him to come across this rarely staged gem. Anyone who loves the witty, fast-paced screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s will relish the discovery of Light Up The Sky, and theater lovers will be in three-act heaven.
Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
January 26, 2009