Theater review: ‘Light Up the Sky’ at Theatre Arlington

Dena Dunn as Irene Livingston and Kenneth Fudge as Carleton Fitzgerald in ‘Light Up the Sky’
Dena Dunn as Irene Livingston and Kenneth Fudge as Carleton Fitzgerald in ‘Light Up the Sky’

A temperamental diva, a nervous playwright and a director who is perpetually on the brink of tears in anticipation of an out-of-town opening make for a volatile mix in Moss Hart’s venerable comedy Light Up the Sky, which opened at Theatre Arlington on Friday. It is the same show this company presented for its inaugural performance 43 years ago.

This 1948 play celebrates the high-strung (and, often, unstrung) world of live theater. Uncultured but deep-pocketed producer Sydney Black (Kirk A. Corley) is opening his Broadway-destined show in Boston.

Since the show’s author, Peter Sloan (Sterling Gafford), is a former truck driver writing his first play, Black is banking on a big star, Irene Livingston (Dena Dunn), who doesn’t need a stage to be theatrical, and the highly respected but overly emotional director, Carleton Fitzgerald (Kenneth Fudge), to protect his investment.

But Black’s hard-edged, figure-skating wife, Frances (Katie Weekley), has her doubts. As does the diva’s sharp-minded and sharp-tongued mother, Stella (Barrie Alguire). Standing on the sideline watching this circus like he has seen it all before is successful playwright Owen Turner (David Johnson), who is obviously a stand-in for Hart himself.

These disparate characters square off and spar individually and in allied groupings during the tension-filled hours that precede and follow the unseen debut of Sloan’s play.

The most admirable aspect of this production, directed by Sharon Veselic, is the overall quality of the performances. Weekley plays her part with an odd accent, but she is brilliant at applying comic flourishes to her portrayal, which is also distinguished by excellent timing.

Alguire and Dunn make a great mother-daughter team, with the former just about stealing the show. Fudge does a nice job with his intentionally overstated roles. Gafford is well-cast and highly effective as the would-be playwright trying to stay upright while standing at the center of this maelstrom.

Corley, however, fluffed too many lines at the opening-night performance seen for this review, and Johnson needs to iron some of the stiffness out of his characterization.

Also noteworthy in this production is the costuming by Ryan Matthieu Smith. Weekley’s gaudy getups are especially well-rendered. Better still are the wonderful (but uncredited) period hairstyles worn by the actresses.

What keeps this show from soaring as a whole is, unexpectedly, Hart’s script. This bit of meta-theater is just not as funny as Hart classics such as You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner (both written with George S. Kaufman). This comedy certainly has its moments, and offers several fabulous characters. But it lacks the consistent zaniness of You Can’t and the laugh quotient of Dinner.

It is also a highly dated piece. That is not always a bad thing — Shakespeare seems to be doing OK. But, with this show, its comic sensibilities and epic length (just over two-and-a-half hours) are much more suited to the audiences of its times than to those of the present.

So it is easy to admire many components of this presentation. But it is also hard not to wish that it would light up your sky more than it does.

Light Up the Sky