"Light Up the Sky" at MPC

Anyone who spends time in the company of art, whether making it or living with those who do, is no stranger to one of its central conflicts: to be engaged in producing art is to choose to be open to a certain kind of vulnerability, but to get your art in front of an audience requires a robust, untender ego.  The romantic myth about art, as a character puts it in Moss Hart’s 1948 play “Light Up the Sky,” currently showing at the refurbished MPC Main Stage Theatre, is that genuine artists “do something with their hearts, instead of their heads or their pocketbooks.”  The truth, especially for collaborative forms of art such as theater, is that the place is where art, commerce, self-interest, connection, and longing collide is far more interesting than any idealized notion of artistic purity, untainted by the baser human qualities.

“Light Up the Sky” is an entertaining backstage comedy that pokes fun at the pretensions of theater folk (who are given to pronounce the word thea-tuh) while subtly emphasizing their humanity.  Peter Sloan (Chris Deacon), a former truck driver, is about to see his first play produced, in a pre-Broadway Boston tryout.  The play’s director, Carleton Fitzgerald (Keith Decker), is a highly emotional man who expounds upon the play’s “nobility,” calling the production “shattering” and “beautiful.”  The glamorous star of the play, Irene Livingston (Kristin Brownstone), calls everyone “dahling” and is used to being the center of attention.  The play is being produced by Sidney Black (James Brady), a successful if insecure businessman, and his demanding wife Frances (Teresa Del Piero), an ice skater.  Joining this motley assemblage in the Boston hotel as they await the play’s premiere is Miss Lowell (Alexander Bristow), the writer-secretary Irene has hired to write her memoirs, Irene’s mother, Stella Livingston (Phyllis Davis), her husband, Tyler Rayburn (Clark Brown) and Owen Turner (Mitchell Davis), a veteran playwright.  There is also a parrot.

Gradually it is revealed that Peter Sloan’s play was written in a spirit of hopeful, “wide-eyed idealism,” a humanistic stance that serves as a barometer for the various characters’ shifting attitudes, depending on whether the play is perceived as a hit or a dud.

“Light Up the Sky” is a minor work, but MPC’s production, seamlessly directed by Gary Bolen, benefits from a handsome stage design and uniformly solid performances.  Hart gives his best lines to Frances and Stella, whose wisecracks are well served by Del Piero and Phyllis Davis.  (Sample: “I wouldn’t let him put on a girdle for me, let alone a play.”)  One delightful moment is when Stella describes posing as a cleaning woman, complete with mop and pail, in order to sneak into the theater to see the show (since the imperious Carleton Fitzgerald has forbidden anyone to watch rehearsals).  Her subsequent advice is to “see the show on an empty stomach.”  Later, Fitzgerald rhapsodizes about having seen an old, decrepit cleaning woman in the balcony, mesmerized by the play.  Davis’s expressions as she listens to the description of herself as a pathetically haggard, falling-apart creature are priceless.

Someone in the play says that theater is a “democracy of fear.”  When a work is a hit, there’s more than enough love to spread around, but when it’s a flop, everyone, from actor to writer, director to producer, suffers the sting of public humiliation, and everyone quickly looks for someone else to blame.  Yet despite the rampant cynicism and bad behavior on view, “Light Up the Sky” is at its heart a valentine to the unique, vibrant, (and increasingly threatened) world of live theater, a world that is affectionately portrayed by MPC’s talented cast and crew.

"Light Up the Sky" runs through Sunday, May 26.  For tickets and information, call 831-646-4213 or visit www.mpctheatreco.com.