Not ten minutes into Stanley Tucci's sporty revival of the 1989 farce Lend Me a Tenor, Tony Shalhoub has a small fit—the first in an escalating series. He's Saunders, tyrannical manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera, and he's prone to these episodes, especially when it's the opening night of Otello, and his dyspeptic star (Anthony LaPaglia), known as Il Stupendo, is first late, then ill, then apparently dead. (From there, the situation deteriorates: Identities are mistaken, blackface is applied, people are secreted in closets and bathrooms, girlfriends and wives and chippies are bedded and befuddled and betrayed on cue, to genre specifications.) Shalhoub, with a minimum of spittle, turns each outburst into an exquisite seminar in Advanced Apoplectics. Visibly ulcerating as he learns that the shrimp for the gala have not been properly refrigerated—an early and comparably small catastrophe—Saunders recovers himself with the gingerliness of a man handling dynamite, and resolves: "If the shrimp stays pink, the audience gets it. If it turns green, we feed it to the stagehands." Not a rollickingly witty line, to be sure, but the crowd goes wild.
And that's Tenor in a nutshell: The shrimp stays pink, if only just, thanks largely to Shalhoub, his nimble castmates, and Tucci's just-this-side-of-fussy comedic choreography. Ken Ludwig's sweaty, schematic door-slammer, despite its second-act Swiss-clock coups, is as gassy and flabby as Il Stupendo himself: excess characters seemingly created to give an onstage moment to everyone in the community-theater troupe, a 75-minute first act (Tucci shares some blame for that one), and a lot of dead wood in the dialogue department. Yet take the shrimp line: The crowd is in stitches by the time Shalhoub gets to the word "pink." He delivers it as if he’s staving off a coronary. Over and over, he reminds us what a sumptuous meal a gifted actor can make of the most rubbery meat, if he's got the chops. "Take one step into that room," Saunders later warns a nosy bellhop (Jay Klaitz), "and I will kill you." Hardly an original threat, but Shalhoub turns it into one of the night's biggest laughs, parsing a petrified cliché into a complete psychological journey from mere desperation to the brink of sincere homicidal intent. (Now that Monk is over, can Broadway please have him back for a few seasons? Characters are welcome here, too, y'know.)
Shalhoub has the plum part—Philip Bosco won a Tony playing Saunders in 1989—but he's also in good company. The Hangover's Justin Bartha, in his Broadway debut, displays fine comic modulation after overcoming a couple of rough, rabbity scenes early on. He practically yodels the role of Max, an emasculated opera gofer and closet divo drafted to go on as Otello in Merelli's place. (We're treated to a rare white-guy-finds-his-mojo twofer here: Max finally locates his undescended coglioni—and successfully romances Saunders's starstruck daughter, Maggie—by impersonating an Italian stallion...while in blackface! It's so clumsy, it's almost postracial. Almost.) As Tito's long-suffering wife, Maria, Jan Maxwell makes the most of her too brief stage time, going from ice to spice with neck-snapping acceleration and practically drawing a spotlight around herself every time she enters. She matches LaPaglia's red-sauce Eye-talianisms, and, playing meat-a-ball stereotypes, the two of them somehow end up the most authentic couple onstage. LaPaglia himself is a mountainous presence, even flat on his back. (That's where he spends a good portion of the play—nearly everyone mounts him, in one of the many—maybe one too many—running physical gags.) He deploys his ursine bulk with a big man's unhurried gusto, and gets funnier as he grows more passive, more wary, more confused: His unamused "Si" made me chuckle every time it burped out of him. Jay Klaitz nails a few fey moments as an autograph-seeking bellhop, and Mary Catherine Garrison (as Saunders’s daughter), Jennifer Laura Thompson (as a soprano determined to sleep her way to the top), and Brooke "Mrs. Shalhoub" Adams (as a randy patroness of the arts) bring up the rear. If only there were more for these immensely funny ladies to do here, outside of the standard disrobings and double entendres.
Indeed, most of Ludwig's characters are hotel furniture for three male leads to bounce off of. And bounce they do, in tightly blocked patterns that, for the most part, pay off even better for appearing so deliberate, so forthrightly clownish. For a play that's ostensibly about singing, Tucci has created something distinctly dancelike here. (About the singing itself, the less said, the better. Why any thinking playwright would pen a mainstream farce that requires not one, but two characters to sing opera is beyond me.) Watching Shalhoub, in a rage fugue, spin an ottoman like a hamster wheel, I was reminded of what was missing from the far-better-written-but-less-ecstatic Present Laughter: joy. Sometimes, it's enough if the shrimp stays pink.