Light Up the Sky
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Jan. 19, 2001
Light Up the Sky: Stars in the Firmament
Schroeder Hall, Concordia University,
through January 28
Running Time: 2 hrs
The more things change, as those canny French have noted, the more they remain the same. This is true for product placement, even; although who knows how much lettuce Moss Hart might have scored for mentioning Coca-Cola in his 1948 comedy Light Up the Sky? Perhaps the soft drink reference was nothing more than cultural verisimilitude, a way of nailing the show firmly to the temporal context in which it's displayed. Well, it was an effective gambit then, and it remains effective now ... although it's a bit jarring, up here in the 21st century, to realize the longevity of that particular commercial icon. Even the later mention of Freud, and several other touchpoints: They seem so anachronistically up-to-date in this, well, this period piece. But that's because those cultural memes have aged so well; because they are, after all, what nothing else has been able to replace. And so it is with the play itself.
Director Don Toner has chosen this vintage drawing-room comedy to inaugurate his new company, Austin Playhouse. The choice is another effective gambit qua inauguration, since this play is about ... putting on a play. The characters involved are high-toned theatre folk who are flogging a first-time playwright's work toward, they hope, the lights of Broadway and beyond -- back when that sort of thing was the pinnacle of mass-culture theatre success. And this story, like Coke, is sugary and bubbly and easily consumed. There are no actual people onstage to make you think too hard; there are caricatures, and there are types, and they interact and soliloquize as such, and if you're looking for that sort of thing because you like, say, really good sitcoms on TV between the soft drink commercials, then this show is made for you. Because it is, after all, where those good sitcoms came from, long ago; and this modern rendition by Austin Playhouse trumps most of what you can find on your prime-time idiot box.
Toner's direction moves the players all over the show's fully realized hotel suite and has their stylized emoting fine-tuned for highest impact. And those players? A comedy gold mine. Babs George is in this, playing a prima donna actress; watching her, you know that if she and Glenn Close had squared off in a sort of thespian wrestling match to see who'd get to play Cruella De Vil, Close would've had to kiss those puppies goodbye. Mary Agen Cox is here, too, as a sort of good-natured battle ax whose every opinion sails forth on a frigate of slang-tinged attitude; David Stokey is a hypersensitive director, crying at the drop of a hat; Dirk Van Allen -- whose voice is so reminiscent of Jiminy Cricket -- plays a gruff businessman yearning for cultural relevance; Patricia Goldwater, Joey Hood, Thomas C. Parker, the rest of the cast, they're bringing this cartoonish tale to starbright life, they're tearing up the stage at Concordia.
Some of the jokes haven't aged so well, of course -- I mean, they're old by now, sure -- and a few of the then-timely references are lost (at least on this whippersnapper), and perhaps local playwright Ellsworth Schave would have been better off with a typewriter, somewhere offstage, than dropped into the midst of this wacky narrative. But it's likely you'll be too busy laughing at the characters' shenanigans or marveling at the precision of the period hairstyles and costuming provided by Brianna Jones and Glenn Avery Breed; it's likely you'll be too busy enjoying the show to care about such trivia.
So go ahead, take a time-travel trip back to 1948 with old Moss Hart and the new Austin Playhouse company. You might have a Coke while you're there; you'll definitely have a smile.