For the second time in two nights at the Shaw Festival, the play-within-the-play was alluded too but not really seen. Unlike the world première of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Divine: A Play About Sarah Bernhardt (cross-reference below), Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky (first seeing the light of day on Broadway in 1948), the production—the fledgling work of neophyte playwright Peter Sloan (gamely done up by Charlie Gallant) —is pivotal to the madcap storyline while Bernhardt’s best speech comes at the end of je ne sais quoi when the famed actor tellingly goes off script.
Despite the fact the former is a serious—at times depressing—social drama and the latter is a broad comedy pillorying Hart’s theatre “colleagues” (some idly threatening legal action if the piece became a film…), the thematic glue is the evolution of first-time writers (Sloan learning the hard way under the spotlight while seminarian Michaud—spurred on by the Grand Dame of the French theatre—realizes that life has far more to offer than just blind obedience to suspect doctrines and religious leaders).
Hands down—given the choice—Bouchard’s fresh insight will pay many more rewards to serious theatregoers than Hart’s fluffy trifle that requires a Herculean effort from all concerned to lift it anywhere near the must-see category.
But there are some magical moments along the journey. The opening of both Acts I and III provide a bird’s-eye view into stage diva Irene Livingston’s (Claire Jullien in fine form) sumptuous suite at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The artistic trust of director Blair Williams, designer William Schmuck, lighting designer Louise Guinand and—notably—projection designers Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson sneak the audience into the unfolding drama as vrai voyeurs in a manner well worthy of its own applause on opening night.
Once inside, there’s hope for two hours of zaniness, led off in part by a talking parrot, yet that it is one of the set pieces that soon wears out its welcome (another being the equally tiresome “I could cry” line gamely uttered by Steven Sutcliffe, playing harried stage director Carleton Fitzgerald).
Providing sober second though to the fine, if fickle, art of playwriting, Graeme Somerville finds just the right “done that been there, have the scars to prove it” tone as Owen Turner.
Laurie Patton is her usual boisterous self, holding court in the personage of Irene’s mother, but the gin (both bottled and card games) gags—along with socialite Frances Black (Kelli Fox)—never find their payoff.
Central to the earnest playwright’s plight is no-friend-of-sincerity Sidney Black, given an appropriately pompous performance by Thom Marriott.
A late-inning appearance by Shawn Wright as the wonderfully hapless William H. Gallegher more than makes up for the stereotypical Shriner yuks that attempt to provide comedic variety to the main narrative that proves—yet again—that “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (Ye gods, we even hear that line along with several references to Oklahoma.)
Williams and has colleagues have tried their best to mine Hart’s largely autobiographical exposé of backstage shenanigans, but in the end, the material doesn’t do justice to their skill sets, which may be an allegory on its own for the perils of taking a gamble on an insider’s view of The Great White Way. JWR