Play sheds `Light' on life behind the scenes

Review: Olney Theatre's `Light Up the Sky' reveals the allure of the stage -- as well as egos and affectations.

July 21, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"The world of the theater is as closed a tribe and as removed from other civilian worlds as a Gypsy encampment, and those who enter it are spoiled for anything else and are tainted with its insidious lure for the rest of their lives," wrote playwright Moss Hart in his memoir, "Act One."

Hart gave theatergoers a rollicking, warm-hearted glimpse of that alluring world in his 1948 comedy, "Light Up the Sky," which is receiving a glowing production at Olney Theatre Center under the sure-handed direction of John Going. Scheduled to play summer stock theaters in Ogunquit, Maine, and Cape Cod, Mass., after it completes its run here, "Light Up the Sky" is Olney's first touring production, and it is an export that does this Maryland theater proud.

By the time Hart wrote "Light Up the Sky," he was a theatrical veteran who had collaborated with George S. Kaufman on such hits as "You Can't Take It with You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner." But in his book, the above comment comes after a description of the failure of his first play, an otherwise forgotten flop called "The Beloved Bandit." A similar near calamity forms the plot of "Light Up the Sky."

Set in the posh Boston hotel suite -- elegantly designed by Daniel Conway -- of a Broadway diva named Irene Livingston, "Light Up the Sky" chronicles the out-of-town tryout of a serious drama by a young, first-time playwright named Peter Sloan. His is a relatively forgettable name, which is significant since, for much of Hart's play, Sloan is ironically portrayed as a minor character who exists primarily to serve the over-inflated egos of the play's director, producer and star.

And what a hilariously spoiled, self-obsessed bunch of overgrown children these three are. Carole Healey's prima donna Irene doesn't walk, she flounces; she doesn't speak, she emotes. As the director, whose favorite adage is, "I could cry," Bill Kux is the quivering embodiment of his own exaggerated notion of the sensitive artiste. And as the producer, who made his money bankrolling ice shows, Tony Hoty is a pinstriped macho lug (a short lug, not a big lug) with the heart of a teddy bear.

When this trio is on stage, the sky truly seems to light up. The wattage increases when they are joined by the play's two comically plain-spoken realists: Irene's tough, wily, card-shark of a mother, portrayed with spunk and vinegar by Halo Wines, and the producer's skating star wife, portrayed by Holly Rudkin as a smart cookie disguised as a dumb blonde.

If all the performances were on this level, Olney might have a perfect production on its hands. Instead, it is slightly flawed by the flat performances of Ben Hulan as Sloan, the neophyte playwright, and Jonathan Bolt as a hit playwright who takes Sloan under his wing.

The first act of "Light Up the Sky" takes place before the curtain rises on the opening night of Sloan's play. In this act, the young writer is swaddled in the sugary embrace of his hopeful star, director and producer, and Hulan's Sloan is appropriately shy, laconic, starry-eyed and grateful. But in Act 2, when the trio turns on him, Hulan appears relatively unfazed, and Bolt's efforts to bolster his spirits feel half-hearted at best.

Just about everything else about this production gleams, including designer James Berton Harris' glamorous costumes, which range from Rudkin's spangly silver evening gown to Wine's claret-colored one, which perfectly matches her dark red wig.

The characters in "Light Up the Sky" are said to be modeled after such real-life figures as producer Billy Rose and actress Gertrude Lawrence, but you don't need these references to enjoy thisproduction. All you need is a love of theater, and if you don't have it before the play starts, chances are you will by the time it ends.

`Light Up the Sky'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and July 31, Aug. 7 and 14. through Aug. 15

Tickets: $15-$32

Call: 301-924-3400

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