'Moon Over Buffalo' throwbacks obscure and clutter

Moon Over Buffalo
Peter DeLaurier, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Kevin Bergen, Julianna Zinkel and Marcia Saunders in "Moon Over Buffalo " at People’s Light.

When Ken Ludwig premiered Moon Over Buffalo in 1995, the contemporary attitude of “something new every five minutes” hadn’t yet permeated America’s culture or eclipsed our collective memory. Back then, his play could bank on a sizable audience who remembered vaudeville, had maybe seen Hollywood stars on the repertory touring circuit, and knew the threat that movies and golden-era television once imposed on the theater.

Now, his play seems less a situation comedy and more a time capsule. Unlike Ludwig’s hugely successful (and consistently hilarious) Lend Me a Tenor, which relies on similar tropes, Moon Over Buffalo teems with dated references: to Eleanor Roosevelt; to Hollywood A-listers from the post-World War II era; to Life magazine, which no one reads anymore.

In a more comedically successful production, I might ignore any throwbacks. But at People’s Light, they obscure and clutter rather than enhance and inform.

Ludwig set his comedy in 1953, with two aging actors struggling to stay afloat in business and their marriage. While George (David Ingram) and Charlotte Hay (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) may once have graced Broadway and the country with their cultural presence, they now get overlooked for a new Frank Capra film, despite their “superior” dramatic chops.

So they philander, he with Eileen (Tabitha Allen), a young actress he may have impregnated; she with their long-standing lawyer, Richard (Peter DeLaurier), who wants to run off with her. When their daughter, Rosalind (Julianna Zinkel), returns with a new fiance (Christopher Patrick Mullen as Howard), it drives a series of mistaken identities, poorly staged slapstick fights, and some outrageous situations meant to provoke laughter.

Except that they usually induce more embarrassment than earnest fellow feeling. Separately, Ingram and Scallen shine in individual monologues and comedic moments, and Zinkel and Mullen positively sparkle in their minor roles. But Pete Pryor’s otherwise loving and well-intended direction has sown this stage with more corn than a field in Iowa. So when George bursts onto a set in the wrong costume, I cringe rather than howl. When he drunkenly whines for his wife for the third time of a running gag, I turn my eyes away.

Ludwig wrote Moon as a love letter to the theater. But whose? The theater must remain relevant and must connect more to the present and future than long after the past. It needs vitality, not datedness, and this production, no matter how well-intentioned, does neither except by accident, reminding us of things we don’t know about anymore, which might not be worth knowing about anyway.

"Moon Over Buffalo"
Through Aug. 13 at People's Light, 38 Conestoga Rd., Malvern.
Information: 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org