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A CurtainUp LA Review
Stella By Starlight
by Stanley H. Nemeth

Bernard Farrell's 1996 farce, Stella By Starlight, currently in its American premiere at Laguna Playhouse is a sure-fire audience pleaser. Loaded with laughs, the work clearly reveals that its author, before he's anything else, is a showman of considerable accomplishment. In this present work, what he can do best - - and this is no mean feat - - is to get his audience laughing at the antics on stage and keep them doing so for most of a full evening without his resorting to irrelevant potty humor or any of the other easy laugh inducers flourishing these days.

The play restricts itself to a single night in the life of a contemporary Irish couple, Dermot (a downsized corporate employee) and Stella (a former Dublin bank teller), who, with their teenage daughter Tara, have left the economically booming big city for a new life in the remote countryside. The central incidents include the astronomy-obsessed Dermot's preparations for photographing a comet about to crash into Jupiter; whiny Tara's plans to go to her Debs Dance (a sort of prom) with a wonderfully unusual escort (Tommy); and the arrival and overnight visit of a devious married couple from the big city, Geraldine and Paul, old friends who turn out to be not so friendly after all.

As witty farce, the play is beyond doubt successful. When it comes to perfectly timed entrances, oddly, hence laughably dressed characters, amusingly unintended revelations through offhand comments, and quick, clever responses to impertinent wisecracks, Farrell is in his element.

It is when aiming toward entrance into the higher and steelier realm of the serious comedy of ideas that Farrell flounders. Despite a few lines of dialogue about Paul, a former Union Rep promoted into management and now an advocate of "corporate inviolability,", as a sellout, there's little to convince us that we're watching a play of any marked social significance. Farrell's assertions about the consequences of the Irish economic boom of the 90s on national life and character are far from central to his actual play. At best, they're an afterthought. Beyond the immediately farcical, Farrell's ideas seem more like unnecessary ornaments added to the action rather than organic. His characters, too - - inattentive husbands, dominated or manipulative wives, a bratty daughter - - owe more to TV sit-coms than to any other source of observation. What we have is a well-made farce in the nineteenth-century sense of the term; but, as Eric Bentley long ago pointed out, any well made play can quickly devolve into "an ill-made play," as it does here, not because mere action dominates, but because there's little more to relish than mere action. Character and theme accordingly weaken to a paleness more suggestive of neglect than artistic intention.

All the cast members are skillful farceurs, and one of them is considerably more than that. Amelia White (Stella) and Bairbre Dowling (Geraldine) both shine in their respective roles as dominated wife and manipulative one. Similarly, Warren Sweeney (Dermot) and Thomas MacGreevey (Paul) as businessmen types who pay insufficient attention to their wives do commendable work. Caitlin Shannon as the whiny Tara tends at the outset to be too monotonously strident, and the otherwise fine direction by Andrew Barnacle might have benefited by toning her down. Later, happily, she emerges as more of a vocally varied performer. The standout performance of the evening is given by Joel Moore as Tommy, Tara's strange date. A tall, gangly fellow, with spiky hair, earrings, a spaced look, and an ill fitting black evening suit, Moore resembles nothing so much as a punk rock version of Ichabod Crane. Hilarious in just about all his earlier words and gestures, he ultimately radiates an unaccountable, odd sort of charm. Moore does Shakespeare, and he would be a marvelous Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Julie Keen's costumes are especially inspired in the mad outfit she designed for Moore and in the wonderfully vulgar see-through negligee she chose for the would-be seductive Dowling. Dwight Richard Odle's winning single set, the living room and observatory of the country couple, is appropriately cluttered and includes such farcical delights as a collapsing bookshelf and and a water-spouting radiator.

For enjoyers of good farce, Stella By Starlight, offers a well-spent evening in the theater.

Written by :Bernard Farrell
Directed by : Andrew Barnicle
Cast:Warren Sweeney(Dermot), Amelia White(Stella), Caitlin Shannon(Tara), Bairbre Dowling(Geraldine), Thomas MacGreevey(Paul), Joel Moore(Tommy)
Scenic Design: Dwight Richard Odle
Sound Design: David Edwards
Costume Design: Julie Keen
Lighting Design: Paulie Jenkins
Running Time 2 1/2 hours, including one fifteen-minute intermission
At : Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA (949) 497-2787/
From : February 12 through March 17, 2002. Opening February 16.
Reviewed by Stanley H. Nemeth based on February 16, 2002 performance.
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