Following the Tony-nominated revival of Lend Me a Tenor on Broadway, Ken Ludwig will debut his new play, A Fox On the Fairway, opening on October 12, at the Signature Theatre in Washington, DC. Directed by Tony Award winner John Rando (Urinetown), this madcap tribute to the great English high comedies of the 1930s and 1940s takes audiences to a private country club where mistaken identities and romantic entanglements—along with an over-the-top golf tournament—abound. Ken recently answered some questions about writing A Fox On the Fairway revealing why he loves British comedy, the process of creating comic characters, and why he tends to write happy endings.
Since your new play, A Fox On the Fairway, is a tribute to high comedies of the 1930s and 40s, what are your favorites from that era?
Some of my favorite light comedies from that period include A Cuckoo in the Nest and Rookery Nook, two of the “Aldwych farces” by Ben Travers. They’re called that because they were part of a series of farces that played at the Aldwych Theatre in London during the 1930s. Another of the farces in this series, Plunder, was a huge hit for the National Theatre when it was revived about 30 years ago. Other plays of this era that I love include When We Are Married by J.B. Priestley and See How They Run by Philip King. The greatest comedies of this period, in my opinion, are Coward’s Private Lives and Blithe Spirit and the Kaufman and Hart classics You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came To Dinner. All of these plays are textbook examples of pure stagecraft at its best.
A Fox On the Fairway has the same feel as the high comedies of eras past, but it’s actually modern in both setting and humor...
I very consciously set it in modern times. Most of my plays are set in the past—often in the 30s sometimes in the 50s. These were periods that we envision as more trouble-free than our own and therefore more conducive to stories and characters who are happily crazed but less neurotic than characters we associate with modern comedies. I thought it would be fun to take this genre and try to apply it to our own day and age. The tricky part was coming up with a setting and I asked myself: where do we feel most trouble-free in the modern world? It seemed to me that a country club was a fair answer. We go there to get away from our troubles and relax and have a good time. And of course country clubs are riddled with social conventions and hierarchies, which are the backbone of good comedy.
Two of the lead characters in the play, Bingham and Pamela, have fantastic banter. Did you have anyone in mind when writing that dialogue?
I certainly had a certain type of comic character [in mind]. Bingham has a touch of Basil Fawlty of “Fawlty Towers” in him. He's a bit starchy and “British” in type—at least before he’s pushed to extremes by the situation. In many ways, that’s my favorite type of comic character to write about. It's a character of social pretensions; it gives you a framework to try to knock down. Saunders is like that in Lend Me A Tenor. And George Hay in Moon Over Buffalo. And even Leo in Leading Ladies. As for Pamela, she is also part of a long comic line for me. The Carol Burnett/Lynn Redgrave/Joan Collins role (Charlotte Hay) in Moon Over Buffalo is the beginning of the line for me. It’s a comic type that was historically a character part, not the lead, but I’ve brought her center stage for many of my plays. In A Fox On The Fairway, the character of Louise is also in a long line of roles that I’ve loved writing. She’s in the same family as Audrey in Leading Ladies and Lydia Lansing in Shakespeare in Hollywood —young, strong females who are madly attractive to young men and have a unique, innocent but surprisingly clever way of looking at the world.
Bingham and Pamela are older and wiser, and they are juxtaposed to two characters that are younger and still unformed. The characteristics of both sets of duos seem to intermingle throughout the course of the play. Was this intentional?
Absolutely. The play is really about love – and the joys and angst and craziness of love—in two different eras of our life. One is in the first blush of youth when we’re in our early 20s; and the other is when we have a second chance at life in our mid—40s. The second moment is represented by one couple: the seemingly-starchy director of the country club (Henry Bingham), and a sophisticated seen-it-all member of the club, Pamela, two people who, in the course of the play, reconnect after twenty years of just missing each other. The younger moment in the play is represented by a second couple: Bingham’s new assistant, Justin, a sort of walking, good-natured train-wreck who is desperately in love with one of the waitresses at the club’s tap room. In the comic context of the play, when the world starts falling apart (as it always does in some way in a comedy) the older couple revert to their sexually-charged post-pubescent selves, while the younger set just try to cope with crisis after crisis. By the end, as in the high comedies of the 1930s and 40s, it is desperation that fuels the comedy. And of course it’s always when we think we have our lives in good shape and cared for that they start falling apart, which is at the root of the comic impulse.
High comedies tend to have happy endings, as do many of your plays. Is this something you strive for in your work?
The author Louis Kronenberger had a wonderful thing to say about comedy: “Comedy is not just a happy as opposed to an unhappy ending, but a way of surveying life so that happy endings must prevail.” I try to create worlds where we can ultimately see some sanity and worth in our existence. I try to push the ball towards a sense of hope and belief in the humanity of our neighbors. In that kind of world there will be a happy endings because, as Kronenberger says, it’s a natural result of that way of looking at life.