As soon as the curtain went up on "Lend Me A Tenor," unleashing the almost blinding white resplendence of Tony Walton's Art Deco set, I knew I would enjoy the play. This hunch was confirmed moments later when I heard a sound calculated to bring joy to any genuine theater lover's ears: the thud of a well-slammed door.
Now door slamming is an art that has languished in the American theater in recent years. Actors have been more concerned with making political statements or developing their "sense memory" than learning to slam a door with the gusto necessary for farce. In Ken Ludwig's play, the dazzling cast not only slams with elan, but they coordinate their slammings with a precision rare this far from Paris.
Walton's set has six finely sculpted, deeply resonant doors. Need I say more? Need I actually describe the silly plot, which is peopled by an egocentric Italian tenor (yes, I know I'm being redundant); his histrionic wife; three other women who adore him; a crafty, aspiring American tenor; a pompous Cleveland impresario, and a resourceful bellhop?
As you might imagine, the plot would not withstand intense scrutiny. But, unlike another recent comedy that falsely calls itself a farce, "Tenor" does obey the peculiar logic of the genre.
It begins in the believable world and then snowballs into mirthful absurdity. It also follows another law of farce, depicting sex as mechanical and thus un-vulgar.
Ludwig's taste is also clear from his musical choices: He has two men sing the great duet from "Don Carlo," which left me so happy I could excuse puns like someone ordering champagne, asking "Is Mumm all right?" and being told, "She's fine."
The play could not be better than it is under Jerry Zaks' brilliant direction. Knowing that the slightest faintheartedness can destroy a farce, he has his cast going full tilt every second.
I have sometimes found Philip Bosco a routine actor. But here he seems to use all the energy he has saved from coasting through his last three roles and plays the pompous impresario with admirable abandon and flair.
As a sort of Clark Kent turned Supertenor, Victor Garber is expectedly superb, especially in the way he drily tosses off Italian monosyllables.
Ron Holgate, whose voice is suitably grand for the Italian tenor, and who has mastered such farcical essentials as a goony smile, is a perfect focus for this giddiness.
Tovah Feldshuh is deliriously wild as his hysterical wife. Caroline Lagerfelt, J. Smith-Cameron and the irrepressible Jane Connell make a powerful trio of fans. Jeff Brooks is so polished as the bellhop you'd think he'd spent a lifetime apprenticing for "Room Service."
The ensemble is as dazzlingly outlandish as William Ivey Long's costumes. Bravo!
Sheer craziness is afoot at the Royale Theater, where "Lend Me a Tenor" opened last night, and it is running very nimbly.
The nuttiness of a farce can be very sweet, and if you are feeling under the weather - or even over the weather, for that matter - and you believe that manic laughter is the best medicine, let me prescribe for you this lovely dose of pure, operatic idiocy.
The scene of Ken Ludwig's prime rib-tickling comedy is Cleveland, Ohio, in 1934. The Cleveland Grand Opera Company - did Cleveland have a Grand Opera Company in 1934? No matter! - is putting on Verdi's "Otello," with a world famous tenor, Tito Merelli.
As we open, Saunders, the exquisitely harassed and magnificently unscrupulous manager (Philip Bosco), is waiting with impatience and his gofer-flunky, Max (Victor Garber), for the tardy arrival of the soft-womanizing, hard-drinking tenor (Ron Holgate), who eventually turns up unexpectedly with his long-suffering but tempestuous wife (Tovah Feldshuh).
It would be unfair to give away Ludwig's plot - which is logical enough, even obvious, when it happens, but has a happy touch of outrageous surprise to it.
Suffice to say it hinges on doors being opened and shut, honors lost in disguise - the ladies in question are Maggie (J. Smith Cameron), who is Saunders' daughter and Max's girlfriend, and Diana (Caroline Lagerfelt), a prima donna with secondary motives - plus monumental misunderstandings and mishaps, with identities so mistaken that they are almost totally lost.
Ludwig is a writer who will descend to any depths for a good laugh - Man looks at champagne and queries: "Is Mumm all right?," hardly waiting for the instant answer: "She's fine" - but his real skill is a gift for farcical situations.
At the play's critical juncture, the plot calls for two lookalikes (the selection of the opera "Otello" was not quite fortuitous) to whiz in and out of the scenery like two cuckoos in the same clock with fairly similar ideas on time.
Luckily, Ludwig's schemes are aided, abetted, plotted and planned by his extraordinarily adept director, Jerry Zaks, a master of many crafts and sciences, including theatrical logistics.
The play originated in London a few seasons back - but there its general reputation did not tempt me to rush to see it. However, I suspect that from London to here it has undergone quite a sea change.
For one thing, it is now most brilliantly set by Tony Walton, who does a '30s art moderne hotel suite that is a gem of witty commentary but also truly glamorous and attractive. Even the costumes, by William Ivey Long, are equally satirically thoughtful, yet also charming.
Zaks, I suppose, is the big hero of the evening, for he lends the play more than a tenor or two; he twists, pushes and prods it into the most helter-skelterish of comic stagings since Michael Blakemore's "Noises Off."
Everything that could go right goes right - even in going wrong, probably especially in going wrong.
He (and presumably the playwright) has business for Bosco and some wax fruit that is a joy to behold; he has dear old Jane Connell, playing the chairman of the Opera Board, sitting at a hilarious slant while modestly offering to do anything at all for the operatic star - but these are just moments.
Simply throughout, Zaks keeps the thing moving wonderfully and timed like a perfect egg.
The performances in this kind of flimsy boulevard farce need to be terrific and are.
Bosco - who at one point takes the longest pause seen on Broadway since the last actors' strike, and at another presents a wonderfully anguished picture of an impresario flogging a dead tenor - has, I think, never been better or funnier.
Holgate, who, apart from anything else, actually sings pretty convincingly, has a joyous time as the tenor, and Smith-Cameron, putting the ingenuous in ingenue; Lagerfelt as a soprano who doesn't believe in last curtains; and Feldshuh as a wife the time of whose fury has come, are splendid as the women in and around his life.
Then, and perhaps best of all, there is the ever-accomplished, super-polished Garber, one of our most exciting comedians, who does wonders as a wimp transmogrified into a hero of operatic proportions and dimensions.
The tragic thing about farces is the lame way they inevitably end - but even here Zaks has foreseen the genre's shortcoming and tagged on a little wordless, almost balletic, zipped-up coda for the entire company, which is thrown happily at the audience like a bouquet.
It works to produce bubbles, where a let-down might have been; like the play and like Mumm, it's more than all right, it's fine!
A farce should be cleverly built, energetically directed and buoyantly acted, but there is one thing it absolutely must be: consistently funny. As staged by Jerry Zaks and performed by a cast led by Philip Bosco and Victor Garber, ''Lend Me a Tenor,'' the jolly play by Ken Ludwig at the Royale, is an impeccable example of how to construct and mount a farce - up to a point. ''Lend Me a Tenor'' is all things farcical except hilarious.
There are some scattered big laughs, certainly, though one must wait through most of Act I for the first of them to arrive. The prime buffoon is Mr. Bosco, attired in the white tie, top hat and tails of a Cleveland opera impresario in 1934. Mr. Bosco has just learned that his imported star for the night's sold-out performance of Verdi's ''Otello,'' the legendary Italian tenor Tito Merelli (Ron Holgate), is too ill to go on. The news that $50,000 worth of tickets may have to be refunded does not sit well. Mr. Bosco turns comatose from the shock, then reddens with apoplexy, then flies into a shrieking, violent rage, and finally subsides into an open-mouthed stupor, looking like a bloated marlin just after the fisherman has removed the hook. It's the second priceless display of technique this season - the first, also partnered by Mr. Garber, was in ''The Devil's Disciple'' - by one of the best comic actors we have.
Nearly as splendid are both Mr. Holgate, who gets Mr. Bosco into this jam, and Mr. Garber, who must get him out of it. More than 25 years after he played Miles Gloriosus in ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,'' Mr. Holgate still makes a fine comic specialty of vain ladies' men; his Tito, known to his adoring fans as ''Il Stupendo,'' is a paragon of temperamental matinee-idol hamminess from his silver mane to his preposterously thick Italian accent.
Mr. Garber is his charming antithesis: Max, the nerdy, bespectacled Cleveland Grand Opera Company gofer who harbors Walter Mitty fantasies of being a great tenor himself. When he is drafted by Mr. Bosco to impersonate the ailing star in ''Otello,'' Mr. Garber carries out the hoax in high style, mimicking Mr. Holgate's personality (and singing voice) as effortlessly as Clark Kent turns into Superman.
Such is Mr. Ludwig's unabashedly silly, highly workable premise. In ''Lend Me a Tenor,'' two Otellos (in identical costumes and chocolate makeup) pop in and out of six slamming doors in a two-room hotel suite, all the while pursued by a bevy of understandably confused Desdemonas that includes Tito's long-suffering Italian wife (an insufferably mannered Tovah Feldshuh), Max's would-be fiancee (J. Smith-Cameron) and an ambitious soprano determined to sleep her way to the Met (Caroline Lagerfelt). What's more, Mr. Ludwig, who is a lawyer as well as a playwright, has done the hard work of crafting the machinery of farce. Unlike the lackadaisical Neil Simon of ''Rumors,'' he carefully maps out his mistaken identities and close shaves, even to the extent of making certain that each Otello clocks the same time at lovemaking (15 minutes, if you must know).
So why does ''Lend Me a Tenor'' fail to rise into comic pandemonium? The trouble is not Mr. Zaks's timing or slapstick choreography, which are as fast and stylish as one expects from the director of ''Anything Goes'' and ''The Front Page.'' Nor should one look too critically at the credibility of Mr. Ludwig's plot or characters. As is demonstrated in the evening's breathless coda - a silent-movie frenzy - farcical clowning has little to do with reality and a lot to do with the illogical lunacy of wind-up toys.
The play's real comic shortfall is in its details rather than in its master plan. The lines are almost never witty, settling instead for the hoary double-entendres that so titillate the West End (where ''Tenor'' was a hit in another production). Worse, too many of the farcical situations seem like pale echoes of those in similar works from the play's period (notably Broadway's ''Room Service'' and Hollywood's ''Night at the Opera,'' both of 1935). While farces always trade in stock elements, and while the author's homage to a Marx Brothers past is intentional, the old tricks must be augmented by new inventions if the audience is to be ambushed into riotous laughter. A final scene - or third act - that might have topped the traditional set-ups with fresh, hysterical surprises never arrives.
One must also ask whether Mr. Zaks is too kind to direct killer farce fueled by the basest human traits. The warmth that the director brings to comedies like ''The House of Blue Leaves'' and ''Wenceslas Square'' is misplaced in a piece in which every character will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Jane Connell (in the Margaret Dumont role of the Opera Guild dowager who might fire Mr. Bosco), Ms. Lagerfelt and at times Mr. Garber seem benign rather than ruthless as they pursue their selfish ends. The softening of the characters' malice deflates the cartoonishness of a farce much as a Looney Tune might crumble if Tweety weren't placed in real jeopardy by Sylvester the cat.
With its speedy gait, gleaming lighting (by Paul Gallo) and wildly luxurious Art Deco sets and costumes (by Tony Walton and by William Ivey Long), the play looks so much like a prime example of its genre that one is all the more frustrated by the shortage of belly laughs. But the evening provides professional, painless fluff even so. If, as ''Lend Me a Tenor'' would have us believe, a Cleveland audience of 1934 can mistake a rank impostor for the world's most celebrated opera star, it would be foolish to underestimate the prospects of a simulated farce on Broadway in 1989.