Russ Hunt's Reviews

Lend Me a Tenor
By Ken Ludwig

Theatre New Brunswick
April 1996

Theatre New Brunswick got a loud and enthusiastic standing ovation on the opening, Friday night, of its new production of Lend Me a Tenor. It's possible, though, that it was as much for the superlatively choreographed bows, which reprised the entire plot in about a minute of frantic activity, as for the evening's entertainment.

Either way, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of the audience was completely happy with the play, the production, the acting and with the evening's quota of belly laughs. I haven't heard more positive comments from people coming out of a TNB production in years.

Lend Me a Tenor is, as director Walter Learning explains in his notes to the production, a recent (1985) addition to a long tradition of classical farce which can be traced back at least as far as the Roman dramatist Plautus. By definition, farce is simple, basic, broad comedy, with lots of slapstick, misunderstanding, and mistaken identities. It aims at gales of laughter rather than the kinds of snorts and snickers of understanding and amusement you might expect from Oscar Wilde or Tom Stoppard.

Learning takes on the directorial challenge of creating a three-ring circus of slamming doors, Abbot-and-Costello-style crosstalk, doubletakes and pratfalls at top speed and top volume. From the opening scene, as Ted Follows and David Nairn mug, shout, jump on stools and stagger in amazement through the exposition, it was obvious what was up.

What was up was an eight-character romp through a series of misunderstandings and confusions as baroque as any you're likely to see. The plot, such as it is, defies summary (perhaps the best we could hope for is the breakneck mime that Learning devised for the bows). It's enough to say here that it entails "the world's greatest tenor," in Cleveland for an appearance in Verdi's Otello, apparently dying on the eve of the performance, and being replaced at the last moment by a Clark-Kentish character, Max (played quite capably by David Nairn, who flaunts, posing as the tenor, the worst fake-Italian accent I've ever heard). It turns out -- of course -- that the tenor (played with an amazingly overblown parody of Italian excess by Brian McKay) isn't dead at all. At one point there are TWO identically costumed Otellos in blackface and fright wigs racing around Cleveland -- and especially around the hotel suite which is the play's location -- being mistaken for each other.

This provides lots of opportunities for people to hurtle in and out of the seven (count 'em, seven) doors in David Westlake's attractive and efficient set, hiding in bathrooms and closets, disappearing in the nick of time into the hallway or the kitchen.

As we should expect from farce, there's not much room for sublety. Characters are caricatures, without apology, and actors are called on more for gymnastics and split-second timing than for nuances of expression.

In the slapstick sweepstakes, Ted Follows as the long suffering director of the opera company wins handily, followed by Nairn and McKay, who do a wonderful second-act dance as the two Otellos, being pursued by women with, shall we say, axes to grind (Deborah Allen as a lecherous dowager, Leisa Way as an ingenue-groupie, Melodee Finlay as a prima donna who hope seducing the tenor may be her ticket to the Met). The actor I thought might have the moves to challenge Follows, Stan Lesk (I remember him clearly in the TNB Servant of Two Masters, another full tilt farce), was largely underemployed in the role of a bellhop. Sheri Pedersen-McKay, as the tenor's long-(but not silently-)suffering wife, was almost as skilful an overblown stage Italian as her husband (in their arguments I was reminded of the ancient Sid Caesar / Imogene Coca parodies of Italian realist films).

All that said, I have to admit that I was disappointed with the script. The Broadway production of 1989 was nominated for five Tony awards (winning two, one for best play), and Ken Ludwig, the author, recently won another for Crazy for You. Thus I was anticipating something with a lower proportion of clinkers among the punchlines, and with a more imaginative sense of the lunacy that might arise out of the basic situation. Over and over, though, lines seemed surprisingly flat.

Follows got laughs from a number of them simply by force of timing. At one point, for example, Max, having decided to go ahead with the mad scheme to impersonate the tenor and sing the part of Otello, says to him, "Wish us luck." "We don't need it," says Follows, and pauses while Max exits. "We need a miracle." The line is so predictable that I heard a neighbour in the audience mutter it before Follows did -- nonetheless, it got a laugh.

And there were a disproportionate number of lame jokes which didn't seem to have much to do with what was going on, or to be very funny. Having received a report that the shrimp mayonnaise for the reception is being kept backstage in 100 degree heat, and asked "What will we do?", Follows says, "If the shrimp stays pink we'll feed it to the audience; if it gets green we'll feed it to the stagehands." That line, too, got a laugh, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out why. Maybe there were lots of ex-stagehands in the audience.

I couldn't quite figure out the conventions of the production, either: the stage is divided into two rooms, with a portion of a wall between them. At some points, when the action is focused in one room or the other, the lights would go down on the other -- but it wasn't clear why that happened some times and not others, or whether the people in the darker room were continuing with their lives over there in the dark, or putting them on hold.

More seriously, perhaps, I found it hard to understand the script's assumptions about what sort of sexual innuendo was funny: granted the play is set in 1934, but the double entendres exploited (at what I thought was excessive length) in some of the misunderstandings (she's talking about singing, he's talking about sex, or she's talking about sex, he's talking about getting an autograph) seemed a lot more suited to an audience from, say, the fifties than the nineties.

My prediction is that if you get caught up in the first few minutes -- if you're taken with Leisa Way's orgasmic response to a recording of the tenor, or with Ted Follows' mock announcement, from stool-top, of the replacement of the world's greatest tenor with . . . Max! -- you may get swept along in the laughter and find yourself up on your feet at the bows. If not, though, you may find it difficult to figure out what all the fuss is about.

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