Every so often you'll see a show like Lend Me a Tenor and hope it finds its audience because the comedy feels so close to the heart of Broadway; because it isn't an interesting theatrical curiosity; it's what the street was paved for. Taking a page (if not several) from the Kaufman and Hart playbook, writer Ken Ludwig follows the course of a star's recovery, not in Beverly Hills or Palm Beach, but in the sticks (here, an opera singer suffers from severe gas and indigestion; in The Man Who Came to Dinner, also set in Ohio, you'll recall Monty Woolley, as a famous author, slips on icy stairs). Watching with comfort food on late-night television or in local theater with your favorite hams this setup is so routine that, here, it takes a few minutes to register that we're not being lulled into the familiar. Instead, the production, directed by Stanley Tucci, takes off (and it's up to you to catch up with it).
Part of the pleasure of watching the play is the precision with which the actors invest their character work. Don't go thinking you're going to see a new Brando (although it's so great to see Brooke Adams–someone who can play naturalistically as she did in Terrence Malick's beautiful 1978 film Days of Heaven). Here, you get the feeling that the actors have been choreographed rather than blocked; they're not letting it all hang out and calling that truth. In this revival, the actors use timed movement; they're edging up with a chair, straightening a pillow, working parallel across the stage, hiding in closets, slamming doors, and, on one occasion, landing a miles-long scream, yet nothing feels mechanical.
From hearing the tapping of a conductor's baton at the start, all the way to the speed run-through at the end–Lend Me a Tenor has a real playfulness. Call it middle-brow, if you must, but I found this to be a very high-spirited show, entertaining in a way that might recall what it was like to see Kaufman and Hart fresh (Ludwig's play is soundly constructed, the product of hours and hours of writing plot points on Post-it notes, I'm sure. Of course, he makes it all seem very easy). As Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison) spins around on her seat in a baby blue dress and white gloves in the play's opening moments; she's setting up a show you'd like to watch with Charlie Chaplin (after he's come off the set of The Great Dictator, bouncing a balloon globe off his boot). Anthony LaPaglia and Jan Maxwell play the volatile Italian couple, well versed in opera on the stage and in their lives. Tony Shalhoub, some of whose dialogue with Justin Bartha sounds like it comes out of a "Who's on first" routine, has no idea how not to look out for number one (even though he's got a body on his hands). Bartha plays the overworked assistant, who happens to be able to sing the lead in Verdi's Otello; he’s told to cover the foreign tenor and "Stick to him like glue." Jennifer Laura Thompson wants New York so badly she'd sell body and soul, yet still be at the Met in two days. And Jay Klaitz is the bellhop who really deserves the tip. In a play not much interested in realism, Tucci and his pros substitute style instead.
2010 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
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