Leading Ladies in the Cleveland Plain Dealer
An evening full of comical, belly-laugh, yummy treats
Monday, September 13, 2004
Plain Dealer Theater Critic
No. 1, guys in dresses. No. 2, Shakespeare. No. 3, friends of Dick Cheney's daughter.
These three disparate elements come together in a highly combustible and almost continuously hilarious new comedy by Ken Ludwig, Broadway's reigning gagmeister.
"Leading Ladies," a doozy of a cross-dressing comedy, had its world premiere over the weekend at the Cleveland Play House, in a superbly designed and performed production directed with spot-on comic timing by the author himself.
The play worships Shakespeare, and especially "Twelfth Night," ranging from its premise about two itinerant Shakespearean actors in drag to its surprise curtain call-within-a-curtain call.
The plot - the two actors dress up as women to inherit $1 million each, but fall in love with the real women they're supposed to hoodwink - may have some purists shouting, "Foul!"
Sure enough, it does bear a resemblance to "Some Like It Hot" (if not the funniest movie ever made, one that will do until the funniest movie comes along) and "Charley's Aunt."
But an 11th-hour surprise development concerning one character's sexual orientation takes the play's denouement in an entirely new direction.
That revelation and the sly Shakespeare allusions both add enough new dimensions to a familiar story to make it fresh and funny all over again.
In fact, the literary references and the turning of the sexual tables deepen the comedy, subtly reminding us that cross-dressing is by no means a modern invention, drawing a line connecting the Bard's gender-bending to Flip Wilson's Geraldine.
Ludwig's script, developed last season at the Play House's Next Stage Festival, is more consistently funny than his "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo," which sometimes feel mechanical.
"Tenor" and "Buffalo" both hit big at the Broadway box office and at theaters around the country. "Leading Ladies," which moves next month to Houston's Alley Theatre, may well have a similar trajectory of success.
But even if the Play House/Alley production doesn't make it to Broadway, Clevelanders can enjoy what amounts to a Broadway show in the comforts of the warm, wood-paneled Drury Theatre.
Broadway blood courses through the veins of every member of the creative team, and it shows most obviously in set designer Neil Patel's towering York, Pa., manse and its elegant, sweeping grand staircase.
The cast runs like a pack of theatrical thoroughbreds, too.
As the two conniving but none-too- swift actors, Brent Barrett is Hollywood handsome and knows it as the Tony Curtis-y one, while Christopher Duva comes across like Leo Bloom from "The Producers" in the Jack Lemmon-y part.
As the actors' romantic interests, Lacey Kohl's endless legs will fog even the most devoutly married guy's glasses when she appears in roller skates and red- checked minidress, and Erin Dilley's girl-next-door wholesomeness covers up a starved libido.
But performances in smaller "character" roles offer the yummiest treats in an evening filled with them. Mark Jacoby, for instance, boils over with pent-up rage as a greedy, meddlesome pastor, and Dan Lauria has an easygoing presence as a stolid, oft-insulted family doctor.
And tiny Jane Connell, who has been on Broadway for nearly half a century, including four Ludwig plays, portrays a rascally matriarch who thankfully just won't die.
"Leading Ladies" marks the directorial debut of Ludwig, and the author has his play operating with laserlike precision. Much to his credit as a word person, some of the funniest moments are visual, not vocal.
Men dressing up as women has always been funny, but that is only the beginning of the laughter in "Leading Ladies."