The director weeps. The star goes to pieces. The producer fumes. The mother-in-law plays gin. The Shriners party. And the poor playwright is nearly destroyed by the experience of his first production. It's Moss Hart's "Light Up the Sky" at the Olney Theatre Center, and John Going's production demonstrates there's a bounce in the old play yet.
Hart's structure is devilishly simple. Act 1 takes place on opening night before the show begins. Act 2 takes place on opening night after the curtain comes down but before the reviews come out. Act 3 takes place after the reviews come out. Dr. Jekyll's head would spin at the personality switches that take place.
All's well with the world at 5:30 on a winter's afternoon in Boston. The year is 1948, "Oklahoma!" is a hit, and Sidney Black (Tony Hoty) has branched out from his career as an ice show entrepreneur to produce "The Time Is Now," a serious and sensitive new play by novice writer Peter Sloan (Ben Hulan). We never do find out exactly what "The Time Is Now" is about, but it takes place in the ruins of Radio City Music Hall after a nuclear apocalypse.
Just possibly, those involved should be a mite worried. But no, they're on cloud nine. Director Carleton Fitzgerald (Bill Kux) blubbers with anticipation. Leading lady Irene Livingston (Carole Healey) adores everyone. Black struts like a bantam rooster. Only Black's figure-skater wife, Frances (Holly Rudkin), and Irene's cynical mother, Stella (Halo Wines), have their doubts--Stella because she disguised herself as a charwoman the previous night and sneaked into the dress rehearsal.
Stella confides to Frances that the show's a turkey. After the first performance, everyone agrees with her. The audience laughed. People walked out. Our artistic geniuses gather back in their flower-bedecked hotel suite to hammer out the answer to the only important question: Who can we blame for this?
After a lot of finger-pointing, everyone agrees that the culprit must be the writer.
Hart's play is old-fashioned and courtly in pace, but it's as wickedly smart about the theater as any satire ever written. (The gonzo movie comedy "The Producers" takes off from "Sky's" unexpected-reviews plot turn.) Hart put 20-odd years of his own experience into this play, and if it's a little broad, that's not the same thing as saying it's inaccurate. The director who sits in the audience opening night and weeps at the beauty of his accomplishments, for example, is a type alive and flourishing here in local theater.
The characters are types, but they're not dull. Or at least they don't have to be. As Irene, Healey hits only one note, but the rest of the cast finds amusing variation in their stock roles. The only badly written part is the absurdly naive, annoyingly self-righteous young playwright, and Hulan can't quite redeem him.
Daniel Conway's luxurious hotel suite and James Berton Harris's showy costumes cushion the show in luxury. The play can be faster on its feet than it is here, but it's still nice and lively.
Going can't quite redeem the sentimental elements--the last 15 minutes, when the characters all make up and prove how good-hearted they are--is pretty excruciating. But you certainly have a fine, snide time getting to that point.
Light Up the Sky, by Moss Hart. Directed by John Going. Lights, Dan Covey; sound, Ron Ursano/the Chroma Group; props, Elsie Jones. With Jonathan Bolt, John Little, Terry Gibson, Tim Marrone, Paul Gruskiewicz, Richard Pilcher, Nathan Stolpman. At the Olney Theatre Center through Aug. 15. Call 301-924-3400.
CAPTION: Ben Hulan, Bill Kux, Tony Hoty and Carole Healey, from left, in Olney Theatre Center's production of Moss Hart's still-golden oldie "Light Up the Sky."