Operatic Comedy on Loan

04/09/2010 12:30 PM |

Lend Me a Tenor, a let's-put-on-a-show burlesque in rollicking revival at The Music Box, is free of foul language, just one of the many signifiers that this community-theater favorite from 1986 is old-fashioned, a throwback to Astaire-Rogers madcappery, to the rapid banter and slapstick antics of silver screen screwballs. Hell, its sense of humor goes back even further: its mistaken identities and crazy costuming schemes—two actors of remarkably different stature become "indistinguishable" because they are wearing the same cape, wig and blackface make-up—are straight out of Measure for Measure. They're downright Shakespearean.

Or, maybe, Figaroan? Lend Me a Tenor, after all, is about opera; it revolves around a group of outsized Clevelanders (and Italians) staging Verdi's Otello circa 1934, and its brassy, boffo, buffa humor is rooted in both The Globe Theater and La Scala. Justin Bartha, "the guy who fell asleep on the roof in The Hangover," stars as Max, an easily undervalued part: his is the only vaguely humanoid role amid a cast of scenery-chewers, including his impresario boss, the shyster showman Saunders (Tony Shaloub); the philandering, oenophilic, barbiturated divo of the title (Anthony LaPaglia); and his furniture-climbing wife (Jan Maxwell). Bartha is clever casting—like his character, he's a seemingly small presence among titans. But he's the straightman, the glue that holds together the other, larger-than-life actors who treat one another like relay race runners: whenever one leaves the stage, they hand off the manic energy to whoever stumbles out next.

As such, the play lives or dies off the pacing and performances. Stanley Tucci, making his Broadway directorial debut fresh off of losing an Academy Award, keeps the comedy racing and the performances popping: the actors seem to use each and every object on the prop-cluttered set (an ornate hotel suite designed by John Lee Beatty, a noted contrast to the flea-bag rat trap across the street in A Behanding in Spokane). LaPaglia's accent—on loan from Rob Marshall's Nine?—slips in and out unsurely, but he gets big laughs for squealing in despair at the pitch of a dog whistle, and for the fiery repartee he shares with Maxwell. She's so marvelous—hissing, twitching, flailing, howling, hopping on the bed—that you wish her role weren't so small. Shaloub, on the other hand, has so much stage time he steals the show. From the moment he bursts onto the boards he's a sputtering, splenetic uproar: flinging props, spit-taking pills into the audience, shouting at his watch, cradling the telephone, strangling a corpse; crouched on the floor, he spins an ottoman with his palms and soles like a kitty-cat; he delivers all his lines with the gravelly, vaguely accented voice of a cartoon villain.

As the brutish, humerus-less Gerard Butler increasingly becomes the face of contemporary American romantic comedy, Lend Me a Tenor recalls an older comic tradition, one rooted in smarts and sophistication. For a brief moment in the mid-80s, recaptured here, somebody did make them like they used to.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)