`Light Up Sky' passes its tryout at Everyman

Hart's 1948 comedy misses only few steps

Theater Review

January 18, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The initial performance, the raising of a curtain on a play before its very first audience, is for me at least the worst two hours of that play's existence." So wrote playwright Moss Hart in his memoir, Act One.

Light Up the Sky, Hart's 1948 comedy, is about exactly that. But, with the exception of a few glitches, it's a delightful couple of hours for the audience at Everyman Theatre.

Although Light Up the Sky focuses on a first-time playwright, Hart wrote it after he was an established veteran, and the craftsmanship of this nimbly constructed comedy is a thing of beauty in itself.

The first act takes place in the posh Boston hotel suite of a famed leading lady (played with glorious, diva-scale excess by Kimberly Schraf) a few hours before the opening of the Broadway tryout of a serious drama by a young, neophyte playwright (Matthew Pauli as a humble, timid and ill-at-ease hayseed). The second act takes place after the opening-night curtain has fallen, and the third act - these were the days when plays had three acts - is set in the wee hours of the next morning.

In that span of time, Hart's stock theatrical types go from the syrupy sentiments of elated hopefuls to the backstabbing bitterness of angry rejects, and - almost - back again. Hart was far too skillful a dramatist to allow even stock types to be mere caricatures; as a result, the characters in Light Up the Sky get a chance to grow and learn something from their histrionics.

People in the theater adore plays about the theater, and for the most part, you can feel the joy that director Vincent M. Lancisi's actors take in their roles. This is certainly true of Schraf's scenery-chewing leading lady. Her scenes with Christopher Bloch as the weepy, self-obsessed director of the play-within-the-play are among the production's funniest. Seeing Schraf melodramatically sink to her knees as the star begs the hurt, overlooked director to make a good-luck toast is just one of the humorous images with which Lancisi heightens the comedy. (In the next act, he gets a series of farcical effects from a bunch of balloons.)

Swinging a leopard-skin handbag and occasionally putting up her dukes, Rosemary Knower delivers a hilarious turn as the nouveau-riche producer's wife, a plain-spoken former ice skating star who refers to herself and her husband as "mugs." Knower's confident, comic performance leaves no doubt that this local actress, who rose from the ranks of community theater to become a versatile company member at Everyman, has developed into a top-notch character actress.

Unfortunately, Stanley Weiman's portrayal of her character's producer husband is less assured; it's a performance that will most likely improve, but Hart's metaphor-laden speeches do not fall naturally from Weiman's lips.

Set designer Daniel Ettinger has crafted a pretty powder-blue hotel suite, using the same basic structure as his previous set for A Delicate Balance. However, costume designer Reggie Ray's 1940s apparel features a couple of bizarre get-ups, including a brocade peignoir set for Knower that looks more like an evening gown and wrap, and formal attire for the star's husband that peculiarly includes two-toned oxfords.

For the most part, however, the production has the right period feel. And yet, Light Up the Sky also seems surprisingly modern. True, there are fewer out-of-town tryouts nowadays, but when they do occur, the stakes are higher, exacerbating the roller-coaster emotions in those hotel rooms in Boston, Chicago and, even, Baltimore.

Hart's characters may behave badly, but his affection for them is never in doubt, and the audience at Everyman shares that affection.

`Light Up the Sky'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 16

Tickets: $15-$25

Call: 410-752-220

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