Perhaps the most cleverly structured and tightly knit farce of the last quarter century is Ken Ludwig's delightful romp, Lend Me a Tenor. The 1989 farce (currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse thru March 10) boasts a good measure of slamming doors, mistaken identities and a multitude of tumbling pratfalls.
The madness is focused on a Cleveland opera company unexpectedly forced to replace an ailing (or apparently deceased) visiting world-class tenor in a production of Othello at the very last minute. The comic device sets the stage for freewheeling comic pandemonium featuring a panic stricken impresario, the visiting tenor's tempestuous wife, an ambitious soprano, an aggressively amateur singer and go-between, and an abrasively resourceful bellhop.
The jibes begin when the star passes out from drink and sleeping pills in what appears to be an apparent suicide. In a futile attempt to revive the singer, the harried gofer is recruited to replace the guest tenor. Director Don Stephens has sharpened the duties of what true farce can be, with a keen sense of lunatic behavior and well-balanced delirium. It's all in the timing as the doors in the hotel suite (a cushy art deco design by John Lee Beatty) slam with accustomed regularity.
When the real singer and his dubious replacement both appear in costume and blackface, it becomes one of the great comic charades in theatrical history. (The playwright was visiting Millburn at the opening night performance and appeared to be having as much fun as the rest of the audience.)
The cast is a delicious grouping of acting jesters. Judy Blazer repeats the role of the tempestuous wife, which she played in a 1991 Paper Mill production. Her icy stares are triumphant prized visions of comic statuary. The daughter of the panic stricken impresario, though ardently wooed by the gofer, is smitten by the visiting star, "Il Stupendo." She is delightfully realized by Jill Paice and a dreamboat in her scanties. The abrasive autograph-hungry bellhop is played by Mark Price with functional zest and spirit. The hair-triggered impresario is acted by Michael Kostroff with coma-inducing panic.
It all comes down to bona fide hilarity.