Playwright Leads with Leading Ladies

Special Corespondent

What qualification prepares one to write some of the contemporary theater's most successful comedies - literate farces, rife with opera-world hoaxes, time-traveling fairies and similar screwball elements?

A degree from Harvard Law School, in the case of hit-maker Ken Ludwig.

Ludwig says his time there taught him "how to be focused and work hard, and not take work for granted."

This nose-to-the-grindstone ethic seems to have paid off, judging from his track record.

Ludwig's credits range from "Crazy for You," a vehicle for classic Gershwin tunes and the winner of a 1992 Tony Award; to "Lend Me a Tenor," a widely produced farce; to "The Beaux' Stratagem," a retooling of a Restoration comedy. His 2004 crowd-pleaser "Leading Ladies," about Shakespearean actors who attempt to snag an inheritance by dressing in drag, runs at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre through Nov. 10.

In a recent phone interview from Washington, where he lives, Ludwig said that he was only 6 years old when he started yearning to be in theater. After his parents took him to a Gore Vidal play, "theater became a source of longing for me: a magical kingdom that I longed to be a part of," he says. The attraction was all the stronger because his then-hometown, York, Pa., "had very little of the arts to offer," he adds.

He acted avidly in high school and obtained a college degree in music, but his parents pressured him to pursue a more lucrative career. So he eventually applied to law schools and was admitted to the oh-so-prestigious one in Cambridge, Mass. "Having got into Harvard Law School," Ludwig recalls with a laugh, "my parents said, 'Look: If you don't go, we'll kill you!'"

He went.

Once he had a J.D. to his name, Ludwig began practicing law - writing plays in the early mornings before he went to work. Gradually, small companies began producing his scripts, and eventually a copy of "Lend Me a Tenor" fell into the hands of British composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who staged it in the West End. Ludwig's career was made.

"Leading Ladies" was inspired by a subplot in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which Ludwig read to his daughter when she was around 10. He borrowed the episode's premise - two con men, angling for a fortune - and moved it to York in the 1950s. In this small-town setting, his huckster protagonists pose as women, mounting a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," with hilarious results.

Ludwig says he chose "Twelfth Night" because "it's the greatest comedy ever written, in my opinion - hands down." He adds that the play's themes of gender confusion complement the plot of his own comedy.

Ludwig himself directed his comedy's world premiere, in Houston, where "the audience was with it to such an extent, it was like a steam engine," he recalls. "That's what everyone hopes for when they write a play." In fact, as the director, he had to devise little bits of stage business for his actors to perform during the gales of laughter - a task he had not anticipated.

In the performing-arts world, pure entertainment doesn't always get the same respect as art that's intellectually highfalutin. Ludwig says he used to feel defensive about his own oeuvre's hilarity quotient, but he's "moved beyond that" now.

"People seem to enjoy my work a lot all over the country and the world, and that is exactly what I set out to do," he says. The buoyant universe he writes about is the one he'd prefer to live in, he says: "I just don't deal with other aspects of life in any deep sort of way. Do I admire Arthur Miller one whit less? Of course not!"

But he also admires "the great tradition of comic literature in the English language," and he hopes to write plays that inherit that legacy.

"I'm basically an optimistic guy," Ludwig says. "That's just who I am."

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