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When it premiered more than 20 years ago, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” felt like an uninspired attempt to write the kind of screwball farce that was so popular decades earlier. It seems no less so with its current Broadway revival, but there’s no denying that director Stanley Tucci has staged the hell out of it. The play itself might be derivative, mechanical and devoid of real wit, but this production starring Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub and Justin Bartha is at times hysterically funny.
Set during the 1930s, the comedy has the deliberate feel of a lost script that originally might have starred the Marx Brothers. Taking place in a lavish Cleveland hotel suite, it depicts the comic chaos that ensues when a superstar tenor from Italy arrives for his debut performance in the starring role of “Otello” with the local opera company.
The tyrannical opera impresario Saunders (Shalhoub) assigns his put-upon assistant, Max (Bartha), an aspiring tenor himself, to baby-sit the florid Tito Morelli (LaPaglia) and his hot-blooded but sex-deprived wife, Maria (Jan Maxwell). For reasons too complicated to relate, Tito winds up in such a comatose state that Max believes he is dead. Saunders, not exactly eager to return the proceeds of the sold-out show, urges the reluctant Max to go on in Tito’s place.
Later, when the reawakened Tito attempts to make his presence known, it results in a whirlwind of mistaken identities and romantic complications.
The playwright clearly has studied his inspirations well, as his effort features that requisite ingredient of farces, slamming doors — in this case, six in all — through which characters go through their increasingly frantic paces.
Under Tucci’s razor-sharp direction, the actors seem to be having an absolute ball. Shalhoub and LaPaglia, recently freed from their longtime television commitments to “Monk” and “Without a Trace,” respectively, deliver full-throttle comic performances. The former, ricocheting around the stage like an acrobat, finds endlessly uproarious ways of conveying sputtering indignation, and the latter, sporting a wonderful Italian accent, reveals a previously unseen gift for over-the-top wackiness. Bartha, making his stage debut after hitting it big with surprise movie smash “The Hangover,” is equally terrific, especially when Max, newly outfitted in his lavish costume and blackface, begins to revel in his new identity.
Maxwell is, as usual, utter perfection in her role as the fiery wife; Mary Catherine Garrison, as Saunders’ not so innocent young daughter, garners the evening’s single-biggest laugh with a perfectly timed scream; Jay Klaitz is a hoot as a star-struck bellhop; Jennifer Laura Thompson amusingly camps it up as a lusty soprano; and Brooke Adams (Shalhoub’s real-life spouse) has nice moments as a clueless arts patron.
Running 2 1⁄2 hours, the play suffers from a languid first act before the complicated setups come to full comic fruition during the second. But there are enough belly laughs throughout to make it worthwhile, and the elaborate curtain call in which the cast pantomimes the entire action of the play is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Venue: Music Box Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Bartha, Jan Maxwell, Brooke Adams, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jay Klaitz
Playwright: Ken Ludwig
Director: Stanley Tucci
Scenic designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
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