Great art it’s not, but if you’re looking for a recipe for farce, all the ingredients can be found in “A Comedy of Tenors,” Ken Ludwig’s sequel to his enormously successful “Lend Me a Tenor.” Slamming doors to resounding laughter this month at Paper Mill Playhouse, this second coming of operatic tenor Tito Merelli is, for my money – and, I suggest, yours – funnier than the first. (I’m not fond of the first play’s blackface gimmick, but that’s another matter.)
Set in a 1930s Paris hotel suite with a facetiously drawn Eiffel Tower seen out the window, harried impresario Henry Saunders is producing an operatic concert in a soccer stadium. With an ensemble of four tenors, one fiery wife, a canoodling young couple and a predatory ex-lover all entangled in a roundelay of misunderstood relationships, the play defies one’s ability (okay, mine) to summarize it coherently. Playwright Ludwig’s ability, however, to create such a tangle and then untangle it with dexterity, is unquestioned.
One example: Tito covertly observes his wife in what appears to be a compromising situation with a younger man. While the episode is harmless, the scene is written, staged and acted in a way that invites misunderstanding. It’s not only hilarious by itself, it figures into equally amusing developments down the road.
Along with slam-able doors (there are five here), most farce recipes call for quick costume changes (innumerable), physical action (plenty) and pinpoint timing (impeccable). Side dishes include scantily-clad folks in compromising situations (yup) and a first-act curtain that presages an improbable second act, exemplified here by an outrageous development that leads to high-style hi-jinks.
The cast and direction are nigh flawless. As Tito and his wife, John Treacy Egan and Judy Blazer somehow manage to convey a warm bond even as they rail at each other. Impresario Saunders is a latter-day Mr. Bluster; Michael Kostroff plays him just so. Jill Paice and Ryan Silverman are delightful as young lovers caught with their pants down (literally), and David Josefsberg gets a workout as Max, the would-be voice of sanity. Donna English is a vamp to reckon with. (“Oh, those animal sounds,” she pants after an assignation. “That was you,” she’s informed.)
Director Don Stephenson’s eye and ear for rapid-fire comical imagery is unerring. There’s not a misstep in the staging or an ill-timed line reading. Michael Schweikardt’s set is more than serviceable (those doors!) and Mariah Hale’s costumes are 1930s-stylish. Alexander Kariotis is credited with musical direction and arrangements; if all he did was transpose Alfredo and Violetta’s first act “La Traviata” duet, “Libiamo…,” into a three-tenor trio, this shout-out is well deserved.
What did I say at the top? That “A Comedy of Tenors” is not great art? You know what? Maybe it is.
Through Feb 26 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey. Wed at 7:30PM; Thurs 1:30 & 7:30; Fri at 8PM; Sat 1:30 & 8; Sun 1:30 & 7. Tickets: 973-376-4343 or at www.papermill.org