Light Up the Sky, however brightly it may burn, is no Roman candle. Instead, it’s more of a sparkler. It throws off a certain amount of light and heat, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and instead of popping off, it fizzles out. To some extent, that’s the fault of the critics. (Now there’s a sentence you don’t see in a review every day.) Moss Hart’s 1948 script contains more quotations from reviews, or “notices” as they were styled in those days, than all the other plays that quote reviews put together — so many, in fact, that it takes several actors reading simultaneously to get them all in. Taken together, and not counting a confusing dispute between the writer and the producer, they constitute the main plot turn of this production.
As much as putting reviewers at the center of the drama appeals to the critic in me, it doesn’t work. The notices, which appear as folded-up newspapers that get passed around and read aloud, operate too much as a deus ex machina to resolve all the problems with the sketchy-sounding play-within-a-play that are implied throughout Acts I and II. Perhaps that’s the point — reviews (and reviewers) are as unreliable as they are influential. But as crucial figures in the climax of a drama — or even a screwball allegory — they don’t cut it.
What Light Up the Sky does have going for it are some talented performers giving it everything they’ve got. As the diva Irene Livingston, Stephanie Erb is consistently interesting and often quite funny, but whether she’s offstage getting a massage or being upstaged by random slapstick, she doesn’t get the space or time to give the show a strong center. As the iron-willed, fast-talking producer Sidney Black, Ray Wallenthin exerts gravity, but it turns out that Light Up the Sky is not really about him, either. The ostensible protagonist — and not coincidentally the closest thing to a Moss Hart character — is the playwright, Peter Sloan (Joshua Daniel Hershfield). Yet he too vanishes for long periods of time, and, as with the unseen critics who praise his work, some of his best lines are delivered by other characters reading his written messages.
It’s fun to see Circle Bar B alums David and Susie Couch on the big stage at the Garvin, and they both succeed in bringing the right kind of dry tone to these shenanigans. Marisol Miller-Wave goes all out as Frances Black, the avaricious and ready-to-pounce wife to Sidney. While all three characters seem to be functioning within the same play, David Holmes as the director Carleton Fitzgerald, feels stranded somewhere else. The device of indicating that he’s what was in those times referred to as “swish” by having him cry or talk about being in tears all the time is just too dated to function at this point, which is fine, because if it worked, it would be homophobic. Manic and zany as it may be, Light Up the Sky is not one of Broadway’s underrated gems. If, however, you have a soft spot for fast talk and can remember Mortimer Snerd, there may be something here for you.