by Clark Groome
Farce is comedy on steroids. Its main purpose is to make the audience laugh, much like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges did on the screen.
Most contemporary farces are so self-conscious that there’s not a moment when there’s any credibility. Most productions in my experience play it just for laughs. For farce to work, the actors and director need to play it straight. They need to believe that what’s happening is really happening. It’s not just an excuse to mug and chew the scenery, which always includes many doors that are regularly being slammed.
One of the farces I’ve always liked is Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor.” It has a funny yet believable premise. A superstar tenor is making his American debut in Cleveland. After he arrives he gets deathly ill, and there is some doubt whether he can go on. If he can’t, it would be both an artistic and financial disaster. All manner of mistaken identities, silly plot twists and general foolishness ensue.
“Lend Me a Tenor” is the season-ending production at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, where it’ll be through June 8. It is a mixed bag. Director Bud Martin has assembled a fine cast and then encouraged them to play the piece as if they were on speed. It is funny — but it is also self-indulgent.
What saves the piece for me is the pleasure of watching two of Philadelphia’s finest actors work. Both Tony Braithwaite (the Cleveland Opera manager Saunders) and Jeff Coon (the Italian tenor Tito Merelli) understand how to play broad comedy. Their performances are top-notch. Not quite as good were Eileen Cella as Saunders’ daughter Maggie and Michael Doherty as Maggie’s boyfriend and Saunders right-hand man. In lesser roles Howie Brown, Mariel Rosati, Linda Friday and Tracie Higgins could use a little more self-control.
Martin’s production often gets the tone right. The problem was that right from the start it was going at full throttle. It needs to build, and to do so in a believable way that allows the audience to gradually be caught up in the action. Only when it slows down to take a breath does it really work.
The physical production designed by Dirk Durossette (the handsome, door-rich set), Alisa Sickora Kleckner (the beautiful costumes), James Leitner (the hot lighting) and John Stovicek (the music-filled sound) is excellent.
Act II’s “Lend Me a Tenor” is OK. I only wish it had been more restrained and less caught up in its own self-indulgent, “look at me” approach. We do, however, get to see Braithwaite and Coon in fine form. That almost makes the production’s shortcomings tolerable.
For tickets to “Lend Me a Tenor,” playing at Act II Playhouse in Ambler through June 8, call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org