Sunday, September 12, 2004

Leading Ladies (Cleveland Play House)

Hysterically funny 'LEADING LADIES' at Cleveland Play House

Few contemporary authors are experts in writing farce. Ken Ludwig is not one of those. The two-time Tony Award nominee and recipient of the Laurence Olivier Award for playwriting has proven his abilities as the author of ‘LEND ME A TENOR’ “SULLIVAN & GILBERT” and “MOON OVER BUFFALO.’ ‘LEND ME A TENOR’ is one of the most popular comedic pieces of the past decade and has received more than 200 productions worldwide.

Ludwig’s newest script, ‘LEADING LADIES’ is receiving its world premiere as the opening show of the Cleveland Play House’s 2004-2005 season. The script was workshopped last year as part of the Play House’s annual New Stage Festival of New Plays. In addition to having written the play, Ludwig is directing the CPH production.

On the surface writing, directing and performing in farce seems an easy task. There is usually little plot development, the characters are broadly crafted and bigger than life, and the performers just need to let loose and make the audience laugh. Anyone believing this myth has only to see a badly developed production to see how awful farce can be when poorly crafted and presented.

The difficulty with this theatrical form is that the characters must be real enough to be believable, but broad enough for the audience to both laugh with and at. The direction must let loose the creative, but be restricted enough to allow the author’s lines to be the center of the fun. If the show is too gimmicky, the audience loses the show and gets involved in the effects.

Ludwig, as writer and director of ‘LEADING LADIES,’ has found the perfect balance. The production is a total delight.

Basically, as the program notes indicate, “It’s 1955, in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, Jack and Leo are performing second-rate Shakespeare at a Moose Lodge...a nightmare gig for the two classically trained British actors. A chance encounter on a train leads to an opportunity to put themselves back on their feet and make some money in the process.”

Plot aside, just think of ‘LEADING LADIES’ as ‘SOME LIKE IT HOT’ collides with ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ and ‘CHARLIE’S AUNT.’

Ludwig has infused the production with just enough shtick, just enough creativity, just enough frenetic pace. He is blessed with an amazing cast. There is not a weak link in the acting chain.

Brent Barrett and Christopher Duva as Leo and Jack, are natural farce actors. They have mobile faces, a wonderful sense of timing, and each displays a delightful vulnerability. They are believable, yet unbelievable....a perfect combination..
Erin Dilly and Lacey Kohl as Leo and Jack’s love interests are wonderful. Dilly shines as the beautiful Meg. Kohl, a Judy Holliday-look and act alike comedian, is the quintessential Ado Annie of ‘OKLAHOMA’ and Adelaide of ‘GUYS AND DOLLS.’
A signature device of many farces is the bad or overbearing character...think Lady Bracknell in ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.” Mark Jacoby, is great as the bad guy minister, who evokes the audience to want to “boo” when he makes his entrances.

Dan Lauria, who many will remember as the father on the TV hit series, ‘THE WONDER YEARS,’ makes a perfect foil for Jane Connell, as the aged aunt, who the audience will immediately recognize for her many appearances as a daft old lady in numerous television shows. Connell’s hysterically funny “death” scene is a theatrical “must see.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you want to laugh, to enjoy yourself and leave the “real world” outside, the Cleveland Play House’s ‘LEADING LADIES’ is your thing. This is not a play for those who need a profound message, who have no sense of humor, whose favorite line is “Bah, humbug.” I defy anyone to sit through ‘LEADING LADIES’ and not have a wonderful time! As one patron said as she departed the theatre, “I laughed so hard I think I wet my undies.”