Men in Farcical Frocks

Special to The Baltimore Sun

March 5, 2008

March roared in like a laughing lion at Bowie Playhouse with 2nd Star Productions' opening of Ken Ludwig's comedy Leading Ladies.

I laughed so often and so loudly on Saturday that I nearly lost my critic's anonymity, along with my dignity. It was comic relief for everyone tired of grappling with tax forms and hearing political campaign rhetoric.

Ludwig's 2004 show is in the farcical tradition of his earlier hits, Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, filled with colorful characters, coincidences, mistaken identities, an improbable plot and familiar one-liners to provide easy laughs appropriate to its nostalgic 1958 small-town setting.

"Ken Ludwig possesses a wonderful ability to make new things seem old and familiar" so audiences can enjoy familiar jokes without any mental strain, director Charles W. Maloney noted. He has assembled a strong cast who work smoothly as a comedy ensemble.

As with every production at Bowie Playhouse, we're treated to meticulous staging with minimal down time between changes of artistically authentic sets. For Leading Ladies, a comfortable, genteel living room within a mansion is the backdrop against which scenes from inside railroad cars to Moose lodges appear.

Ludwig's story concerns two down-on-their-luck touring English Shakespearean actors with surnames of Clark and Gable who are working the Moose and Elk lodge circuit.

We meet them onstage at a Pennsylvania Moose Lodge where their one-line excerpts from the Bard are not appreciated. Down to their last $10, the Clark-Gable team leaves town and hears on the train about an ill dowager with a $3 million fortune that she wants to share with long-missing family members Steve and Max.

Leo Clark persuades a reluctant Jack Gable to join him in posing as heirs Max and Steve. The later discovery they're actually Maxine and Stephanie calls for some rummaging through their costume trunk for appropriate garb.

When they arrive at dowager Florence's mansion, "Maxine" and "Stephanie" meet Florence's niece, Meg, who is engaged to marry a penurious self-righteous bore, the Reverend Duncan.

Others in the cast are Florence's physician, who has mistakenly pronounced her dead several times, his son Butch whose lack of confidence is justified, and Butch's girlfriend, Audrey, who sometimes works for Dr. Meyers but is also a roller-skating waitress.

Leo Knight, who plays Leo, is a skilled comedian who spouts rapid-fire Shakespearean one-liners while dueling with Jack onstage at the Moose Lodge. John Parry as Jack matches Leo line for line, while projecting his nice-guy image. At least 6 feet tall, Parry looks particularly silly in dresses, especially the winged outfit he arrives in at the mansion.

Meg, whom Nora Zanger invests with a silly naiveté, is a frustrated actress who comes alive under gender-switching Leo/Maxine's tutelage. She continues to trust Leo/Maxine until she and Audrey witness Maxine and Stephanie remove their wigs when they assume they're unobserved.

Caitlin Jennings is a ditzy Audrey. Jack Degnan is sufficiently annoying as Duncan. Martin Hayes is a comic delight as Doc Meyers, delivering every line with precise timing.

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