There is a line quite early in "Lend Me a Tenor" that gives you a good idea of what lies ahead in this two-act farce. It wouldn't be right to give the whole thing away, but get this much: It has something to do with the opera singer having two costumes. Watch that line.
It's not really fair to say that a show like this, which opened Wednesday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, is dumb, because a farce is not exactly supposed to be a PhD thesis. And you should not intuit anything from the fact that this one was written by a Washington lawyer, Ken Ludwig. It has nothing to do with Washington -- unless I'm missing some major metaphor that has to do with men running around in tights and being mistaken for each other. Come to think of it ...
Never mind. The important thing to remember is that this show has two tall men, two lovely young things, one apoplectic father/impresario, one dowager, a singing bellboy, an irate Italian wife and a set with six doors. And exchanges like this:
Nubile young thing ordering champagne, to tall man she is trying to seduce: "Is Mumm all right?"
Tall man: "She's fine, thank you."
This show, which has already had a successful run on Broadway, is set in a hotel in Cleveland in 1934, where Saunders (Barry Nelson) and his assistant, Max (Michael Waldron), await the arrival of Tito Merelli (Ron Holgate), the Italian opera star who is supposed to sing Otello in a few hours for thousands of "Cleveland's so-called cognoscenti." Tito is late, Tito is ill, Tito is given too much medicine and falls very deeply, perhaps even fatally, asleep. Max can sing, and thanks to the fact that Tito always travels with his costumes (two costumes, remember?) he passes himself off as the famous tenor.
Of course Max has a girlfriend, Maggie (Valerie Leonard), who is also Saunders's daughter, who wants a fling before settling down. "I've been trying to fling with you for three years," Max gripes. In the ensuing mayhem everyone does something naughty except the irate wife (D'Jamin Bartlett), who escapes for a while in a state of medium dudgeon.
Stout Dowager (Justine Johnston) in her sparkly evening gown: "How do I look?"
Saunders: "Like the Chrysler Building."
(Actually, she looks eerily like Miss Piggy competing in a Margaret Dumont look-alike contest.)
And actually, this play is not nearly as clever as it should be, and it would possibly be as flat as a pancake that's fallen off the Chrysler Building were it not for the direction of Jerry Zaks, who pumps everything up with takes, double takes and shtick galore. But try as he might, the show never produces hysterical laughter, settling instead for regular chuckles.
Take the extended double-entendre between the lovely young sex-crazed soprano (Kate Skinner) who is talking to the man she thinks she sang with earlier in the evening. "Was I good tonight?" she says. You can pretty much take it from there. Please.
Seriously, folks, the funniness is labored, like a singer straining to hit the high notes. Part of the problem is that neither Nelson nor Waldron has the panache, the dazzle, the flash or dash to levitate the script. Waldron takes the owlishness of his character too much to heart; Max becomes a dull stick instead of someone who goes through a thrilling metamorphosis. Nelson, whose coiffure looks like an advertisement for a hair-growth hormone, is realistically frenzied where he could project the magnificent exaggeration of a skilled farceur.
Holgate is in the right mode as the deluded tenor. Tall, gray-haired and classically handsome, he looks like Ezio Pinza and can really sing too. More important, he has the go-for-broke expansiveness -- as does Bartlett, playing his wife -- that gives farce a good name. If more of the performers had studied the Marx Brothers, or at least the Three Stooges, or at least the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the performances might gather more steam.
Tony Walton's set is an art deco vision, and William Ivey Long's costumes, especially the exquisite evening gowns, brought gasps of admiration from several female members of yesterday's matinee audience. The underwear was also lovely, which may tell you something about the twists and zips of the plot.
And the two Otello costumes are gorgeous.
Lend Me a Tenor, by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Set, Tony Walter; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Paul Gallo; sound, Gary Stocker. With Barry Nelson, Ron Holgate, D'Jamin Bartlett, Patrick Garner, Justine Johnston, Valerie Leonard, Kate Skinner, Michael Waldron. At the Eisenhower Theater through Dec. 1.