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Aubrey Deeker and Meg Steedle in Ken Ludwig's A Fox on the Fairway
Photo by Scott Suchman

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News

Ken Ludwig returns to Signature Theatre with golf farce 'A Fox in the Fairway'

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By Nelson Pressley for The Washington Post
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ken Ludwig doesn't like the word "farce." He worries that the public holds it in low regard.

Yet the Washington-based dramatist is one of the country's leading comic playwrights, thanks to such fat and loopy hits as the musical "Crazy for You" and the evergreen "Lend Me a Tenor," the mashup of opera and mistaken identity that was revived on Broadway last year (and is nearly always playing somewhere).

Still, when Ludwig writes about the style that's dearest to him, as he did in the current edition of the Yale Review, he identifies with a form that goes beyond what he calls "mere farce." He labels it the "great tradition" of comedy -- a big-hearted genre that runs from Shakespeare through Sheridan to "Kiss Me Kate."

Ludwig's latest venture is "A Fox on the Fairway," which follows the shenanigans of rival country clubs entering their annual grudge match. The show, now in previews at Arlington's Signature Theatre, exploits the drives -- lusty, egocentric, etc. -- of a half-dozen men and women in the rigid milieu of (hushed tones now) golf.

So what kind of play is this?

"It's a farce, for sure," says Jeff McCarthy, who plays the wily president of the host club. "It's a broad, loud, physical comedy. It's a hard workout for all six of us."

"Fox" director John Rando, whose credits include the Broadway musical "Urinetown" (with McCarthy) and comedies by Neil Simon and David Ives, praises Ludwig's fine eye, calling him a "watchmaker." Rando does indeed see Ludwig as a sort of "great tradition" throwback, saying, "He is keeping the 'Front Page' tradition, the 'Room Service' tradition, alive in the American theater."

Rando characterizes "Fox" as following the pattern established in "Tenor," which debuted on Broadway in 1989 and featured characters who the director says are "willing to burst a blood vessel" to get what they want. "It has a tight, small cast," Rando says of "Fox," and features -- yes -- "a farcical world."

Even Ludwig doesn't claim that his comedies are above cross-dressing and slapstick. "Leading Ladies," which appeared at Ford's Theatre in 2005, involved two struggling thespians who don drag to dupe a dowager out of her dough. Ten years earlier, "Moon Over Buffalo" had Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco co-starring on Broadway as has-been hams bickering and getting their repertory of plays mixed up in mid-performance. (The documentary "Moon Over Broadway" captured the real production's ups and downs.)

Still, it's easy to grant the affable Ludwig the distinction he seeks: that while farce can be ruthless and brittle, his works cast a kinder eye on their characters. Rando speaks of the "joy" and "heart" of Ludwig's comedy, and Ludwig makes it clear that's what he's about.
An ironic District tale

"I'm innately an optimistic person, a hopeful person," Ludwig says, sitting in a conference room upstairs at Signature earlier this month. "What I'm trying to do, especially in terms of my career as a whole, is write about things that are enhancing to us as human beings."

The oft-told Ludwig story is that he came to Washington in the late 1970s simply because his brother, Eugene, moved here. Both were lawyers, but Ludwig gradually withdrew from Steptoe and Johnson when "Tenor" and "Crazy for You" made it clear he really could make it writing for the stage. He still rhapsodizes about the city, saying it's been a great place to raise kids (now 14 and 18) with his wife, Adrienne George, and that the theatrical scene here is "a very happy place to be. It's just as good as any place on Earth."

Ludwig's show-biz success has always prompted people to ask why he hasn't moved to New York, but the more interesting question may be why someone who saw himself as a playwright from the age of 6 never saw himself living the fantasy Manhattan penthouse life.

"I think in New York," Ludwig muses, "where you're constantly in competition and seeing what everyone else is doing -- I think it probably would have made me crazy. I never wanted to live there." The punch line: "If my brother had moved to New York, I'd be in New York right now."
'Like Teflon guy'

Ludwig is hard-pressed to name other playwrights writing comedy as he does, aiming for effervescence rather than dark edges and irony. And critics haven't always rushed to lionize his larks, no matter how traditional his templates have been.

"I'm pretty resilient," Ludwig says with a shrug and a smile. "I'm sort of like Teflon guy."

Reviews in these pages have gone both for and against Ludwig over the years, and last spring the New York Times was moved to explore Ludwig pro and con within a week. Charles Isherwood roundly knocked the revival of "Tenor" that starred Stanley Tucci, Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub, but quickly followed up with a considered acknowledgement that the tide of amusement in the audience made the critic, in Isherwood's phrase, the "odd man out."

So while Ludwig laments that his own mode isn't chic, Rando observes, "His plays are audience favorites and actor favorites. They get done everywhere because of that." Indeed, Ludwig almost bashfully notes that his plays are on the boards somewhere every night of the year.

His oeuvre has certainly been more visible here in recent seasons. Once a writer whose plays were largely done everywhere but Washington, Ludwig has now been produced all over town -- Arena Stage, the Olney Theatre Center, even the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where Ludwig's version of George Farquhar's "The Beaux Stratagem" (working from an unfinished adaptation by Thornton Wilder) was a noteworthy success.

"A Fox on the Fairway" marks the second time Ludwig has premiered a play at Signature; the last time was in 2003 with "Twentieth Century," an adaptation of the 1932 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy. The Roundabout Theatre subsequently produced it on Broadway with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche, and while there's no telling whether such a gold-plated fate awaits "Fox," Ludwig can expect New York producers to give "Fox" a sniff. (He already has interest from London.) Ludwig, who finished the play last year, has been tweaking the script during rehearsals with Rando, though not meddling with the basics, according to the director.

"It's whether this gadget or spool needs to be bigger or smaller -- that kind of thing," says Rando, who directed the premiere of Ludwig's "Be My Baby" at Houston's Alley Theater four years ago. "Getting a screwdriver in to make it all tick."

Meantime, in addition to working on the Yale Review article, plus a book called "Teach Your Children Shakespeare" and a forthcoming anthology of his plays, Ludwig has written two more comedies. One, a mystery called "The Game's Afoot," was workshopped last month at the Kennedy Center's Page to Stage Festival. The other is "Midsummer/Jersey," transferring the events of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to today's Jersey shore.

"I just love to write," Ludwig says of the continual output. "It's all I do. What would I do? No, I'm serious. . . . I have to get up in the morning and do something. What am I gonna do?"

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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