Deliberate overacting makes this weak play even worse
Light Up the Sky
(out of 4) By Moss Hart. Directed by Blair Williams. Until Oct. 11 at the Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. shawfest.com or 1-800-511-SHAW NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE— The production of Moss Hart’s 1948 comedy Light Up the Sky, which opened at the Shaw Festival on Saturday night, commits the unpardonable sin of making the play look worse than it is by playing up its weaknesses and largely ignoring its strengths.
Let’s be clear: this was never one of the great works of modern drama to begin with. Hart wrote some fine comedies in collaboration with George S. Kaufman but was less successful on his own and Light Up the Sky (which I saw at one of its final previews) proves why.
This saga of a new play opening in Boston, facing the slings and arrows of an outrageous opening night, is filled with Hart’s sentimentality about life in general and the theatre in particular. What’s lacking is Kaufman’s gift with an acerbic one-liner or his ruthless sense of pacing.
So director Blair Williams instructs most of his cast to make up for these flaws by overacting relentlessly, which is not always a wise idea.
While it’s true that many of the characters are stereotypes (the Philistine producer, the temperamental leading lady, the neurotic director), they were all based on real show business personalities of the time. Imitations of Billy Rose, Gertrude Lawrence and Guthrie McClintic would be pointless, but performances based more in reality might have helped the show seem like more of a piece.
The reason that the broadly acted sequences stand out so blatantly is that there is a trio of lovely, realistic performances off to the side that grab our attention and are humorous and touching at the same time.
Graeme Somerville is simply splendid as Owen Turner, an old-school playwright (Philip Barry, maybe?) of wit and charm who is there to cheer on a newcomer to the profession.
That would be Charlie Gallant, whose Peter Sloan is as decent, sincere and open-hearted an author as you could have hoped for.
And Fiona Byrne makes something appealing out of Miss Lowell, a ghostwriter and secretary who is labouring on the memoirs of the show’s leading lady, Irene Livingston.
That leading lady is in the hands of Claire Jullien, who normally plays sweet, sincere women but here shows a gift for glamour and attitude to spare as the twitchy Irene, but there’s a necessary lightness of touch missing in her approach.
The same problem haunts Steven Sutcliffe as the high-strung director, Carleton Fitzgerald. He starts out as a wonderfully fetching bundle of quirks, but as the evening’s madness continues and the play he’s directed starts to look like the disaster of all time, he goes a bit too far.
Not as far, however, as Thom Marriott, whose producer Sidney Black is pitched at a level that might seem a bit much in the Air Canada Centre. Granted, Black is a vulgarian who usually produces ice shows instead of dramatic allegories, but Marriott keeps striding downstage centre and belting out his lines as though his mantra was “Go big or go home” and that home was Jurassic World.
There’s also some pretty excessive work from the normally splendid Kelli Fox as Marriott’s ice-skating spouse, Frances, as well as from Laurie Paton as Irene’s street-smart mother. Paton is good, however, at firing the few good zingers in Hart’s script.
William Schmuck’s setting strikes all the right notes of realism slightly burnished with excess and one wishes director Williams had taken it as his cue for the evening.