Reviewed by George Basler
Even in an age of political correctness, a time-honored way to get laughs is to put a couple of guys in dresses and let the fun begin.
The technique has been used, with varying degrees of success, in comedies from Some Like It Hot to Tootsie to Bosom Buddies. It’s on display again in Leading Ladies, a 2004 comedy which opened Thursday (Jan. 24) at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott.
The bad news is that Leading Ladies, which opened this weekend, doesn’t reach the heights of Some Like It Hot or Tootsie, which are classics of the genre. The good news is that, taken on its own terms, Leading Ladies is a lot of fun, and the Cider Mill production supplies its share of laughs to ease the mid-winter blahs.
Leading Ladies is the work of playwright Ken Ludwig, who has some cache in creating farces, having also written Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and the musical Crazy for You, all of which enjoyed runs on Broadway.
Set in the early 1950s, the play centers on the actions of two second-rate — made that fourth-rate — Shakespearean actors, Leo Clark and Jack Gable (Clark Gable, get it?). Having seen their act flop at Moose lodges in rural Pennsylvania, Leo hatches a plot for the two to pass themselves off as Max and Steve, the long-lost nephews and heirs of an rich elderly woman in York, Pa.
The plot takes a decidedly convoluted turn when the two arrive in York to find out that the nephews are actually nieces named Maxine and Stephanie. The ham actors dress in drag to pass themselves off as the heiresses, and all sorts of problems and romantic entanglements arise.
A strong point of the Cider Mill production is that the eight cast members make a superb ensemble, working well together and exhibiting a strong sense of comic timing in both delivering their lines and conveying the more physical elements of the play.
Some of this credit belongs to director Charles Burr, who is taking a break from his job as artistic director of the Tibbits Summer Theatre in Michigan to make his Cider Mill debut.
To be successful, a farce has to stay grounded in a sense of reality, no matter how silly the action becomes on stage. Under Burr‘s direction, the Cider Mill cast successfully maintains this sense of reality. None of the performances become so over-the-top that it throws the play off kilter. And Burr keeps the action moving at a brisk pace.
One problem, however, is that Leading Ladies takes too long to set up its premise. The first act, while pleasant enough, drags in a couple of spots, notably when Leo and Jack do “bad” Shakespeare. The action generates chuckles, but not real belly laughs.
The second act, at least in my opinion, was much funnier and, in fact, downright hilarious in several spots as the double entendres start flying. Let’s face it: Double entendres are always funny. A scene in which Leo, who has become Maxine, directs a woefully untalented bunch of locals in a rehearsal for Twelfth Night had the opening night audience laughing loudly, yours truly included.
One especially entertaining part of Leading Ladies is its affectionate skewering of the acting profession with its inflated egos and pomposity, which are matched only by those of Washington politicians, television pundits and theater critics.
Brian Bowman and Chris Rovente make a good team as the two Shakespearean ham actors, Leo and Jack respectively. They reminded me a little bit of the great old comedy team of Abbott and Costello, with Bowman playing the conniving Leo with suitable polish, ego and blissful lack of awareness of his own mediocrity. Rovente, meanwhile, plays the sympathetic comic schlep and does it well. He makes an hilariously ugly woman.
Kaylin Hawkins is delightfully dizzy as Audrey, a local girl who becomes the object of Jack’s affections. She’s funny and silly without becoming a figure of ridicule. Kerrin Hawkins is equally good in the role of Meg, a small-town girl who Leo falls for big time. She has the tough job of playing a character whose straight arrow façade conceals more than a little spice underneath.
Tim Mollen and Mark Bader play Leading Ladies straight characters. Mollen is a pompous and conniving minister engaged to Meg while Bader is an incompetent doctor who develops “the hots” for Stephanie, Jack’s alter ego. While their roles are less flamboyant than the two leads, they get a chance to play two very funny scenes in the second act and make the most of it.
In a smaller role, Matthew Gaska does a good job playing Audrey’s cement-head local boyfriend. He’s at this funniest portraying the young man’s atrociously bad acting in the rehearsal scene for Twelfth Night.
A special mention should go to Judy McMahon who almost steals every scene she is in as the elderly woman whose will prompts the action. The character also happens to be the meanest woman in town. McMahon’s final line, which comes at the end of the show, is the funniest line in the show, in my opinion. It’s a great curtain line.
As usual, the Cider Mill’s set and production staff are first rate. All in all, Leading Ladies is worth braving the cold. You’ll have your share of laughs.
IF YOU GO: Leading Ladies is playing at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Performances are 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 17; also 4 p.m. Feb. 16.
Tickets are $28 Fridays, $29 Saturdays and $26 other times ($10 for Sundays and matinees for ages 18 and younger when accompanied by an adult; $25 Thursdays, Sundays and matinees for students and those 65 and older.)
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 748-7363, and at the box office on performance days until curtain time. Tickets are also available online at cidermillplayhouse.org