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Snappy screwball comedy Lend Me a Tenor uplifts, prevails

In Preston Sturges' classic 1941 satire Sullivan's Travels, a socially conscious Depression-era film director sets out to make a solemn ode to the common man, and instead discovers a hidden truth: If you can make people laugh -- really guffaw until normal breathing becomes endangered -- you've brought something beautiful into this messed-up world. With this in mind, I say thank you to the Star Bars Players. To those worried about current events: Run, don't walk, to Lon Chaney Theater for a fabulous night of farce that would make you smile through open-heart surgery.

Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor, set in the '30s, is a throwback to those screwball days of old, when actors' quick delivery never got in the way of their enunciation. It's full of snappy comebacks, slamming doors, and people stuck in outrageously Byzantine predicaments that make your "most embarrassing moment" seem like a walk in the park.

Max (Adam Burns) is the stammering, borderline pathetic Hugh Grant-type character: We root for him as he strives to win back the love of his virginal fiance' Maggie (Erin Jindra), the opera manager's daughter. Alas, she pines for the goofily smarmy but romantic Italian guest-star Tito (David Rasmussen), who has arrived to play the lead in Verdi's Othello. Max is sheepish and, as played by Burns, can't always keep a straight face, but he gets a lot of good lines (Maggie: "Tito was in Life magazine!" Max: "So was Rin Tin Tin").

Possibly the best performance comes from Amy Brooks as Tito's jealous wife Maria. As Brooks must know, Italian women are trained from birth by years of male verbal aggressiveness to take no shit from anyone, and that includes you, pal. Her portrayal is dead on; every line is nuanced. At one point, she gets so fed up with Tito that she threatens to become a nun: "At least, I will have some fun -- sing hymns, pluck chickens." Her delivery is simultaneously dry, energetic and sexy.

The sexiness doesn't end there, either: Tenor bursts with double entendres and rowdy rompings. Note to anyone thinking of bringing young children to this performance: While the humor never goes too far, let's just say that some of the costumes in this play would get Bob Dole's attention. This is no accident: Performance, in the play, is not only a metaphor for life, but for sex as well. "Singing is like life," says Tito as he instructs Max in the art of confidence. "You can't be tense."

Mary Miller's adept direction only occasionally becomes over-hysterical; nearly always, she captures the pace and choreography of farce with aplomb. When Max and Tito practice a duet together, Maria writes an angry letter next door, her exaggerated movements coinciding sharply with the song's rhythm, building up for the scene's riotous punch line (nope -- not gonna' give it away). Act Two, especially, is a roller coaster ride of hilarity, showcasing Rasmussen's considerable knack for physical comedy. His antics would steal the show, if it weren't for all the other funny characters on stage.

Good screwball comedies are like old Tin Pan Alley tunes: tightly structured, formalistically complex, and catchy as hell. It's populism at its best -- anyone can get the humor, and a good production will make it look easy. Lend Me a Tenor is all of these things, and beyond that, a tender homage to the art of acting as a vehicle for growth. As we stumble through days, courageously jumping from role to role, it's nice to know that sometimes, if he wears a fake beard, cross-laced boots and a golden sash, even a silly-looking white guy can be Othello.

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