Shufflin' Off to Hollywood

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 Moon Over Buffalo, 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 onto the small screen -- as Roseanne Connor'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 shortcoming she may have in more substantial works. MacLeod does have enough live theater experience that he isn't stuck, as many TV actors are when they go on stage, trying to figure out how to make it through lengthy scenes. (On TV, performers are only on 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 half 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 who 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 remembering their short-lived embrace by Broadway -- George and Charlotte are now putting on a double bill of Cyrano and Private Lives in Buffalo. Why these two plays? In part the answer lies in the farcical structure of Ludwig's madcap comedy, which generates mix-ups ranging from mistaken identities to confusion among the characters as to which play it is they are actually putting on. Is anything as funny as an actor dressed in a costume from Cyrano showing up on stage 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 to 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 Ludwig's 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 new fiance Howard, a TV weatherman, in tow. Unbeknownst to Rosalind, her old beau Paul is also on the tour. Earlier Rosalind had 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.

Got that? Add just a few more details: Richard (he's George and Charlotte's lawyer) shows up just in time to escort sometime-paramour Charlotte away. Why? Charlotte has discovered that George has also been having an affair and that he has recently impregnated the troupe's ingenue, Eileen. Deserted by his wife, George gets so drunk that he is not in shape to go on stage for the performance that Capra will attend.

Throw in some slamming doors, plus missed connections of the sort that result from characters running in and out of slammed doors, a gun that goes off by mistake, and a character who is bound and gagged and left in the closet, and what you have is -- well, what you have is a comedy that might be hilarious if the Marx Brothers were starring in it.

Groucho and siblings are, alas, not appearing at the Parker Playhouse, but this doesn't mean that the evening is a bust. Ludwig does write good scenes for actors, and several cast members take advantage of them. In particular, Tod Petersen plays Howard as a kind of generic '50s man come to life. This implausibly earnest Howard takes his calling as a TV weatherman terribly seriously. In what may be the play's one truly inspired scene, Howard -- mistaken for Frank Capra by Charlotte -- responds to a compliment about his work by "performing" a weather forecast, announcing with a bow and a flourish that "the barometric pressure is falling rapidly." Marvy, as Charlotte, cannot but be mystified, and quite convincingly so.

Connie SaLoutos, who plays Rosalind, also gives a strong performance and a charismatic one. She's more charming than Jason Lee Collins' unassuming Paul, whose performance leaves no impression. Buffy Sedlachek has the thankless task of playing Ethel, a one-note character, but does so with grace. Joe Van Slyke makes a whole person out of Richard, virtually a walk-on role. And Michelle Carpenter gives a sophisticated dumb-blonde performance, full of smart acting choices, that makes you realize it's the character and not the actress who is dumb.

Director Curt Wollan (also president of Troupe America, Inc., the show's producing arm) steers his company through the brisk-moving farce, only failing to build hilarity where Ludwig has not allowed it to occur. But even a strong director cannot make Gavin MacLeod into Philip Bosco, or even into an actor who can compellingly hold our interest on his own. MacLeod's big solo is unfortunately also a drunk scene, a golden opportunity for the actor to show us either his character's vulnerability or his desperation. Instead we see the immensely hammy side of the actor. That sort of performance doesn't play well -- here or in Buffalo.

Moon Over Buffalo.
Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Curt Wollan. Starring Gavin MacLeod, Nancy Marvy, Connie SaLoutos, Buffy Sedlachek, Michelle Carpenter, Tod Petersen, Jason Lee Collins, and Joe Van Slyke. Through January 3 at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-763-2444.

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