KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 2, 1998
Audiences love to look behind the curtain, and theater people love to look into the mirror, so it’s a perfect match. Plays within plays and plays about the making of plays have been treading the boards ever since there were boards to tread… and the ‘Hey Kids! Let’s put on a play!’ scenario never fails to fascinate. We’re always dying to know what goes on backstage, and writers are always dying to tell us. Consider Moss Hart, playwright, librettist and director extraordinaire. With his great comic collaborator, George S. Kaufman, he wrote no fewer than three plays about the theater, four if you count one that spoofed Hollywood. And they only wrote a total of six plays together! But then, in 1948, Hart wrote “Light Up the Sky,” his most successful solo writing venture. He had a gift for witty, literate dialogue and probing characterizations.
But in “Light Up the Sky,” character is only skin-deep. This play is, after all, populated with theater people, with caricatures of theater people, if that isn’t redundant. These are prototypes, the theater equivalents of commedia dell’arte archetypes. The setup is opening night of an out-of-town, pre-Broadway tryout of a new play. The Ritz Carlton Hotel. Boston, 1948. The suite of the temperamental leading lady. Pre-opening drinks with the hysterical director, the boorish producer and the idealistic first-time writer. Throw in a jaded older writer, the actress’s cynical mother and a bimbette shopaholic producer’s wife. And don’t forget those wild, drunken, fez-wearing revelers — a few neighborly Shriner conventioneers. It’s a recipe for instant histrionics.
As the opening night wears on, from 5pm to 3am, the banter swings wildly from “Dahling!” to “Bitch!” and back again. It’s the water-faucet of false emotion that theater people leave running night and day, with a never-ending trickle, splash, drip, gush, spurt, splatter, spray, from a spigot that just won’t turn off.
Clearly, Moss Hart knows this situation, these characters, these lines. He’s heard them, he’s said them, and he’s written them. In fact, he lived them, in Boston no less, during the first production of “Light Up the Sky,” which he himself directed and which didn’t go all that well on opening night. But one year later, the piece showed up at the La Jolla Playhouse, featuring theater co-founder Gregory Peck. It’s all one great big, ironic theater in-joke. But you may not get all the punchlines, especially when they refer to old-time theater hotshots.
But if you love this kind of insider’s scoop, if you’re a bit voyeuristic by nature, if you’re a theater-buff and like old-fashioned, urbane comedies, you’ll love “Light Up The Sky.” Don’t look for any deep meaning or long-lasting effects, though. Go to this one for the fun of it, for its dripping sarcasm, spectacular scenic and lighting design, cleverly sumptuous costumes, and bevy of finely-tuned actors having a helluva romp, playing people they know so well they could be them. The professional cast is terrific, though they stand in unfortunately sharp contrast to the MFA students. Perhaps it’s a matter of scale. Everyone in the primary roles is deliciously, shamelessly over the top, which is about the only way to play these lines and speeches. Especially notable are Linda Gehringer as the regal actress/diva, Dena Dietrich as her sharp-tongued mother, and Angie Phillips as the shrewd bimbette.
So maybe the arch phoniness wears a little thin, the timing could be a bit snappier, the party-hardy Shriner shtick is dated and un-PC, the neurotic director is too prancingly, flamboyantly effeminate, and the hilarious blonde bombshell could get those New York vowels just right. But still, if there aren’t guffaws, at least you’ll be mildly, stylishly, elegantly amused.
This is, after all, a paean to the past, an artfully crafted, unabashedly gushy birthday bouquet to a 50 year-old, occasionally arcane comedy. La Jolla Playhouse associate artistic director Neel Keller presides over it all in a skillful but reverential manner, even going so far as to schedule two intermissions in this three-act, unit-set piece, which unduly lengthens the evening beyond 2 1/2 hours. “Brevity,” said that great unintentional comic Polonius, “is the soul of wit.” But he probably added, under his breath, “Isn’t it, Dahhling?”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.