Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 4, 2010
Lend Me a Tenor by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Stanley Tucci. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Wig & hair design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Bartha, with Brooke Adams, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jay Klaitz, and Jan Maxwell.
It's a typical lark, the sort of party trick you'd expect from Ken Ludwig's 1989 farce, even if you didn't know it's always been a part of the show. It recounts, in roughly 90 seconds and zero spoken words, the play you've spent two and a half hours watching. Italian opera divo Tito Merelli (Anthony LaPaglia) arrives in his hotel suite prior to his job singing Otello that night for the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, at the behest of its producer, Saunders (Tony Shalhoub). But after stressful run-ins with his wife Maria (Jan Maxwell), a rabid fan (and Saunders's daughter and Max's girlfriend) named Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison), a zany bellhop (Jay Klaitz), Saunders's gofer - and budding singer - Max (Justin Bartha), and various plot entanglements, Tito ends up unconscious as the performance looms. Saunders is, of course, forced to put Max on in Tito's stead - a move that, of course, causes as many problems as it solves.
The idea is that, after delighting in all this unfolding in real time, you'll find the lightning-quick version the breathless icing on an already hilarious cake. Here, it's merely more of the same-old, day-old confection: a lot of unenergized frivolity, smiling for smile's sake, and a pace so comparatively leisurely you may wonder whether the cast has wandered onto a MoMA tour by mistake. This would be distracting and outrageous as a theatrical nightcap if it weren't such an accurate recreation of the production leading up to it.
Make no mistake: As directed by Stanley Tucci, who's making his Main Stem directorial debut, the show is always at least fine. It's attractive enough, with a semi-opulent set (by John Lee Beatty) and glittery costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz) that appropriately recall the fringes of the Depression art world. And there are a couple of big laughs and a bunch of (considerably) smaller ones along the way.
One cannot, for the record, entirely blame them. Compared to Noises Off, Lend Me a Tenor is more gnocchi than even small potatoes: Michael Frayn's painfully funny play establishes its impossible situation of a recklessly ramshackle touring theatre troupe and builds on it incessantly until gravity demands the whole thing must come crashing down; Ludwig's skeletal writing teeters from the first scene, and never attains quite the dramatic foundation it needs to tower as either humor or theatre.
The vitality of a farce should emerge from its characters' desperate desires; and singing careers, sleeping pills, and temperamental tenors are by any reckoning on the low-key part of the scale. Ludwig pins his play on the connection between the oversized emotions of Verdi's opera and the people surrounding the Cleveland mounting of it, but doesn't delve as deeply as he should into where those feelings come from and why they're exploding in quite this way.
So it's not quite surprising that Bartha is never believable as an aspiring vocalist; Max barely is. Still, the stiff, nerdy mien Bartha affects here hints at not a shred of musicality in either his soul or his body, and he wimpily pursues his dream from what appears to be a significant intellectual remove. (Bartha displayed more comedic finesse in his handful of scenes in last year's hit film, The Hangover, than he does in all of his scenes here put together.) LaPaglia possesses the physical and vocal stature and bravura of a tempestuous star, but projects no palpable yearning that may identify him as more a person than a plot device.
Thompson could nudge up the wattage on her vampiness just a bit, but milks her lines and business (in all sense of the word) to glamorously giddy effect. Klaitz, last seen (briefly) on Broadway in High Fidelity in 2006, is an electrified cannonball that plows through scenes (and, occasionally, fragments of songs) without the slightest trace of self-restraint; it's exactly the kind of performance the central LaPaglia, Bartha, and Shalhoub should be giving.
The production's real surprise, however, is Garrison. She's delivering a nearly star-making turn that suggests the kind of work that could make the entire play sizzle were it deployed by everyone else. Maggie's goal may be the simplest onstage - get Tito's autograph, at any cost - but Garrison commits herself to it so completely that all the sneaking (and sleeping) around and door slamming she engages in isn't blocking disconnected from jokes but the legitimate means to the only end that matters to her. And, by extension, eventually to us as well.
Her gleam is unfortunately not sufficient for fully illuminating the dim environs around her, but it's an invaluable spark nonetheless. This Lend Me a Tenor is far from a tragedy, but it's also not a comic extravaganza that truly earns most of its laughs or that curtain-call reprise. Despite its subject matter, it lacks music, which is a major failing for a play that, like its two lead characters, needs more than anything else to sing.