If you’re ready to have a gay old time (the old-timey way the word is meant anyway; plenty of opportunity this season for the modern one), the funny flurries are showering New York these days. And Stanley Tucci apparently had the fever for a farce, as he decided—at last—to helm his first Broadway play, and chose something that fans of his would see as kismet right off the bat: Ken Ludwig’s jolly, raucous 1989 door-slammer that is just ripe for hams of all varieties. Tucci is no stranger to pratfalls and mistaken identity (his 1998 film The Impostors now seems like warm-up for this moment in the sun), and despite his recent plaudits for more dramatic endeavors, he forever seems a commedia dell’arte kinda guy at heart. His sharp, often riotously funny Tenor is basically this season’s Boeing Boeing, even sharing a towel-opening bit and a scene involving females stuffed in various rooms at one point, and years ago that would have been dull praise until Boeing Boeing’s director, Matthew Warchus, took a once-sloppy flop and polished it to a bright sheen.
The ’30s comedy begins in dual hotel rooms in Cleveland, where Saunders (frequent Tucci wingman Tony Shalhoub), a cigar-chompin’ opera impresario, huddles with his nerdy assistant Max (Justin Bartha) when his headlining player, known to fans as Il Stupendo (Anthony LaPaglia), takes ill. The two must scramble to come up with alternatives, all while fending off Max’s bored sweetheart (Mary Catherine Garrison), a saucy soprano (Jennifer Laura Thompson) with designs on stepping into the spotlight, the tenor’s feisty, no-bullshit wife (Jan Maxwell), and an intrusive, songbird bellhop (Jay Klaitz). And there’s also an opera chairwoman (Brooke Adams, Shalhoub’s real-life honey) who, in all honesty, seems like unneeded window dressing—but her Chrysler Building gown is some dressing.
Ludwig’s play has never been considered the apex of this type of theater (sample exchange about ordering champagne: “Is Mumm all right?”/“She’s fine, thank you”). The text has its share of groaners and head-shakers, but if you have the right cast to throw ’em out at you, you got it all. Tucci is about 80% successful in this region, and one suspects it could hit higher in good time. But for now, you can rely on strong turns by LaPaglia (whose latter-day girth is a tremendous asset here), Garrison, and the redoubtable Maxwell. Despite the latter’s relatively short on-stage appearances here, she’s a lacerating dynamo, as rich a comic actress as the stage has today. Bartha, the sweet-faced film actor, tries very hard in his Main Stem debut but ends up being the weak link, perhaps out of less experience than the others, but mainly because his lunacy doesn’t seem to bubble from within like that of the rest of the troupe’s. He is a reassuring, cheerful presence, but one longs for what could have emerged out of a born clown (Christopher Fitzgerald leaped immediately to my mind).
Now, talkin’ about a born clown, Shalhoub all but waltzes off with the night. Whether spit-taking grapes into the audience (duck!) or clawing the furniture, the man practically breaks himself in half for a laugh. But to witness his divine slow burns and rapier-blade timing is an appreciator of comedy’s wet dream. If you only know him as Adrian Monk or that funny cab driver guy from Quick Change, get ready for a great surprise.
In farce, the actors only have each other to make it work, but in improv, your audience is crucial. And Stuffed and Unstrung, the new puppet improv comedy from Henson Alternative (Jim’s son Brian headlines the terrific ensemble), has no choice but to recruit you to give the bevy of puppets and puppeteers ideas for their ribald, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks style of entertainment. Presided over by the affable Patrick Bristow (a Groundlings vet whose very recognizable from his many TV and movie roles), six hardworking souls (with the assist of double-screen technology to show you puppets only if you want to keep your illusions pure) fling through an endless array of bug-eyed, felt-made creatures to bring stories to life. Of course, what kind of audience you have will be completely relative to your experience, but thankfully mine had some choice pickins: a couple plucked from the audience, dating only now after knowing each other since junior high, got to see puppets reenact their reunion (the female puppeteer nailed the woman’s omnipresent cackle), one fellow got to play puppeteer (with some problem keeping his guy upright), and best of all, a movie scene called “Cigars and Lace”-a genius pitch from the peanut gallery-goes awry when ennui and anxiety have to be incorporated into telenovela style for the scene, again, completely at the whim of the crowd. S&U is all in good, rascally fun, and though the show could be tightened a bit and maybe even slightly pruned, especially in this era of ADD and booze-fueled patrons, smiles are aplenty unless you’re the type who tortures dogs—and yup, even that big, bad football star got a shout-out.
Lend Me a Tenor is now playing at the Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street) in New York City and is an open-ended run. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed - Sat at 8pm, Wed & Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm. Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, one intermission; Stuffed and Unstrung is now playing at the Union Square Theatre (100 E. 17th Street) in New York City and continues until May 29. Schedule varies. Running time: 2 hours, one intermission.