2/22/2020     LEADING LADIES     Georgia Ensemble Theatre

(Bias Alert:  I am friends with actor Rial Ellsworth  and tend to view his work through approval-tinted glasses.)


I was fully prepared to sit down today and write a scathing dismissal of this production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies.  “I’m so over Ken Ludwig plays.” “The set is unfinished.” “The humor is based on easy targets and cheap shots.” “It’s paint-by-numbers plotting and caricature characterizations.”  “It’s a smug outsider’s look at Central PA.” “The pace drags.” “It’s too contrived to work.” “The Roswell Cultural Arts Center is too big to facilitate ‘engagement.’”


And yet, here I am, two fever-filled days later, still thinking about moments that shone, still with a goofy grin on my face.  In the final analysis, I suppose that, judgmental reservations aside, when a play works, it works.  And every now and then (more often as one sails through one’s golden years), one just needs a good laugh to cleanse the palate with something slight and silly.  To be honest, I hated this script and was underwhelmed by the set.  But I laughed. I laughed a lot.

Leo Clark and Jack Gable (Get it?  Clark and Gable?  Ludwig’s plays are never subtle) are hitting-rock-bottom British actors touring Central PA, trying to bring Shakespeare “to the provinces.”  When they read about a local “woman of means” on death’s bed searching for her missing grandchildren, they decide a little fraud is preferable to yet another Moose-Lodge audience.  The problem is, the grandchildren, Max and Steve, are really Maxine and Stephanie.  Good thing they travel with a trunkful of costumes and wigs.  Faster than you can say “Passé Gender-Based Humor,” Leo and Jack are in full drag, insinuating themselves into the lives of their “marks.”  Faster than you can say “We’ve seen this so many times before,” they have fallen in love with the grande dame’s young niece and a winsomely vacant waitress, even as the niece’s priggish fiancé is quoting bible and verse to justify his petty tyrannies and his own profit-motivated engagement.  Faster than you can say “This is a lot funnier than it has any right to be,” they are directing a goofy version of Twelfth Night for a wedding they are hoping to prevent, by any contrivance necessary.   


Let me unpack a few things that truly troubled me about this script.  First, it treats York PA as a culture-free wasteland, the bottom of the barrel for touring British actors.  Now, Ken Ludwig was born and raised in York so he should know better.  I am from Harrisburg, less than an hour up I-83 from York, and even ventured there occasionally for theatre work, including directing an original play by a close friend.  Shakespeare is not only welcome in York, but (occasionally) flourishes.  But, for the premise to work, a culturally smug “we’re better than the locals” is required.  Understandable from the characters, not so much from the playwright.


Next, for the plot to work, it needs to be populated by the most obvious of caricatures – the priggish preacher who’s not as ethical as he should, the dim bulb heiress who makes boxes of rocks seem positively Mensa-worthy, the dotty old lady who wants everyone to jump when she barks, the large man who looks positively hideous in a dress, the best friend who finds dressing in a dress about as appealing as an evening in York and who actually looks somewhat attractive as a woman.


And yet.  And yet.  And yet.


Somehow, this cast makes it work.  They attack these characters with wits in full bloom, and insights knee-capping the stereotypes.  They commit to their characters, making them come alive in ways I’m not used to seeing in Ludwig’s work.  More to the point, they made me LIKE them, in spite of my better judgment.  And they find laughs in the most innocuous of places, in the most familiar of set-ups and the most predictable of pay-offs. 


And, of course, when the tempo revs up from its initial fever pitch, the production achieves true comic brilliance.


Robin Bloodworth (Leo) and Allen Dillon (Jack) romp through the play with blithe delight, never letting their absent ethical centers slow them down.  Caroline Ficken (Meg) and Casey Gardner (Audrey) are pure delight as the distaff objects of affection.  Suzanne Roush (Florence) “rules the roost” with wit and an iron will (pun intended).  Steve Hudson (Duncan) is the preacher, the one we’re primed to dislike, but who still manages to coax some sympathy out of us.  And, in smaller roles, Rial Ellsworth (Doc Myers) and Blake Fountain (Butch) fill in the borders with color and even more smiles.


Yet, we still have the set to endure – all white with pictures, windows, and trimming sketched in charcoal, as if the production team ran out of paint before starting.  I’m sure there’s a reason for this concept – the designer (who shall remain nameless here) has a history of excellent and impressive work.  But, to be honest, I don’t think this script can “carry the load” of a symbolism or allusion, or anything but exaggerated just-removed-from-reality.  It just looks ugly and unfinished.


For the most part (set aside), director James Donadio makes smart choices, keeping the pace brisk, the humor broad, and the focus on the absurdities.  Okay, he chooses to “opt out” of one of the Ludwig devices I enjoy –cramming the whole story into a breathless curtain call.  I’ve read that productions of Leading Ladies often reproduce that silly Twelfth Night in the curtain call, and I truly would have liked to see it, especially since the rehearsal glimpses we see are pricelessly hysterical.


So, yes, I can easily see myself wallowing in outrage at Ludwig’s play, bitterly castigating it as a clichéd comedy about gender and about “the provinces,” particularly of a place I used to know.  I would have loved to say that I hated it so much I could not find a single thing to smile at, let alone laugh to.


But thanks to brilliant cast, and, thanks to a script (I’ll grudgingly admit) that has the virtue of not taking itself too seriously, we are left with a laugh-filled romp that will brighten even the most critical Scrooge’s day.


Leading Ladies is anything but a drag.



     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy     #getLeadingLadies)

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