Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Tony Capone.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The Cast of Leading Ladies; photo provided
"Theater people wouldn’t do that sort of thing."
Ordinarily I am a sucker for a farce. When I see seven doors, or five doors for that matter, on a set I know I’m in for a good time. Ken Ludwig’s latest comedy has a set, on the Theatre Barn stage, with six doors and an alcove with a screen - the magic number seven. I’ve enjoyed his two previous outings, "Lend Me a Tenor," and "Moon Over Buffalo," so I was prepared to enjoy this one, "Leading Ladies." I did, ultimately, but first there was the first act.
Unlike Ludwig’s two other excursions into the madness of farcical behavior this time the setup takes far too long, nearly an hour. The premise is this: two young English actors doing a sort of digest of Shakespeare lose their bookings and discover that two other young Britishers have come into a lot of money. They decide to impersonate the missing heirs, collect the millions and get the hell out of Dodge. Before they can do so, though, the slight-framed one, Jack, falls in lust with a waitress on roller skates. Leo, the broad-shouldered one, falls in love with the third heir, a young woman engaged to the stuffiest minister ever to preach a sermon in York, Pennsylvania where the play is set.
In addition to this, the aged aunt whose death has sparked the waiting legacy turns out to be alive and when she meets her two nephews she revives to a state of amazing good health. The big catch is that Aunt Florence’s three heirs are all really heiresses, so the two men have disguised themselves as women. Hence the title. Are you with me so far?
Florence’s doctor has a son who is engaged to the roller-skating waitress who has fallen for Jack, now playing a deaf-mute woman. Both men have to share a bedroom with the third girl, Meg. The minister is suspicious of the British gals (or guys) and Leo decides to recreate himself as Leo to impress Meg who already has a yen for him - she admires his syntax. And that’s Act One.
It gets tedious, I’m afraid.
However, Act Two is much better as a month goes by and the wedding plans of Meg and the Minister progress. Leo agrees to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the real heiresses cable their imminent arrival. Let the farce begin, and once it does - with quick costume changes, hilarious lines and funny situations, with all seven entryways in full motion - the play is very funny and very worth your time if you like farce. Which I do.
Joshua Forcum is Leo and his female counterpoint Maxine. Not quite the romantic figure full of masculine strength and charm, he cuts quite a dash as Maxine, especially in her purple party dress. He does well in both parts, really, but the fun would have been more fulsome with a buff guy in the role. Forcum has a delicate charm and a pale wit, but he uses them graciously and is ingratiating.
Adam R. Deremer plays Jack and Stephanie. His long, angular jaw makes him a dead-on counterpart of Edna May Oliver, a fabulous character actress from the 1930s. He plays his part and his role with dash and splash and fun. Together the two men are charmingly original as their respective female functionaries.
John Trainor plays the hapless doctor who is accidentally tricked into believing that "Stephanie" is in love with him and will also inherit all the money. His wooing scene is actually very funny, especially as Capone has staged it with the two of them using the entire set for their accidental rendezvous.
Joan Coombs as the dying aunt makes the most of all her moments on stage. She is perfectly cast. Likewise Chris Ide as Butch, the doctor’s son, couldn’t have been better. Jonathan Sundham as Duncan, the minister who is planning to marry Meg, needs more seasoning before he can time the laughs and moves in a farce. He is part of the tedium in the opening scene, the other part being the poorly written scene by Ludwig.
Amanda McCallum plays Meg for all she is worth. She is silly, sweet, entrancing, endearing when she declares her love for Maxine - yes, she does. Everyone basically gets a bit confused about their feelings in this play, and Meg has the moment that tugs at your heart here.
The outrageous performance by Sheira Feuerstein as the roller skating Audrey is made even more so by her performance as Sebastian in the two minute Twelfth Night. Feuerstein actually steals the show away from everyone else for a while as she struts and Brandos herself in this very crazy part. I don’t believe in "actor-proof" writing, so it is to this actress’s credit that Audrey is the wonderful creation that she is in this production.
Capone and his team have done everything they can do to make this a perfect evening. The one thing they cannot do is improve the writing in the play. The last thing you would expect is to have someone quoting famous lines from "Some Like It Hot," with its two leading men in drag, but a few of those lines come popping through. Capone has let the lines take their toll, even punching one of them with an over-the-top gesture.
Abe Phelps, who is an old-hat at designing farce rooms, has delivered a fine one this time and Kate R. Mincer has provided some of the silliest costumes imaginable, and also some marvelous ones. You won’t believe Meg’s final dress. She makes Stephanie and Maxine into stylish, modish models. Stephen Vieira’s lighting is fine.
Leading Ladies won’t open doors into worlds you wish you knew. It won’t provide you with a long-term memory of grand theater. But if you let yourself wade through the first half you will be rewarded with a guffaw or three in Act Two. I think it’s worth the wait.
Leading Ladies plays at the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, NY through July 12. Located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 518-794-8989 or through their website, www.theatrebarn.com.