Cross-dressed `Ladies' fun yet unlikely

Theater Review


"I think I love the theater more than anything in the whole world," a character says in the opening scene of Ken Ludwig's Leading Ladies.

Judging from his predilection for backstage comedies and plays-within-plays, that statement also applies to Ludwig, who has made the theater the backdrop for previous works including Shakespeare in Hollywood, Moon Over Buffalo, the musical Crazy for You and Lend Me a Tenor. (OK, the backdrop for that one is opera.)

Ludwig is equally fond of such comedic devices as cross-dressing, coincidence and double entendres, all of which show up in Leading Ladies, at Washington's Ford's Theatre.

But while director Mark Rucker's production features some sparkling performances, humorous sight gags and brisk pacing, Leading Ladies delivers fewer surprises and feels more contrived than some other Ludwig comedies.

Set in 1958, the plot focuses on a pair of struggling British actors named Leo Clark (Ian Kahn) and Jack Gable (JD Cullum). Beating a fast retreat from their last gig - a fiasco at the Shrewsbury, Pa., Moose Lodge - they learn that an aging millionairess in nearby York is searching for two long-lost heirs. Though it takes some coercion on Leo's part, the actors decide to bilk the old gal out of the bulk of her dough by impersonating the missing heirs, who turn out to be sisters.

"These are not your ordinary women," a character declares when "sisters" Maxine and Stephanie arrive at the home of their wealthy mark (diminutive Charlotte Rae, who can bellow with a voice several times her size). And indeed, decked out in costumes from their Shakespearean trunk - Kahn's Maxine as Cleopatra with a 5 o'clock shadow, and Cullum's Stephanie as Tatania, sprouting tiny blue wings - the pair are far from beauties.

But comical as their appearance may be, it strains credibility. Even if Rae's ailing Florence suffers from poor eyesight, that doesn't explain why everyone else is so easily duped. This is especially troubling in the case of Florence's niece, Meg, with whom Leo unexpectedly falls in love.

Perkily played by Karen Ziemba, Meg, though star-struck, never seems dim enough to be fooled by galumphing, low-voiced Maxine and Stephanie. Furthermore, the only character who harbors any suspicions is Meg's fiance (Patrick Kerr), and his doubts begin before he ever sees the so-called sisters.

Leading Ladies does offer a number of delights, not the least being the play-within-a-play that the Brits and Meg decide to stage - Twelfth Night, a Shakespearean comedy whose cross-dressing and tangled romances mirror those among Ludwig's characters.

To get the most out of a comedy, however, you have to buy into the characters' world, and this particular world is a bit too far-fetched. "The theater can be wonderful of course. At times," Meg's fiance acknowledges. Ludwig's comedies can be wonderful, too. But too many of Leading Ladies' seams are showing.

"Leading Ladies" plays at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St., N.W., Washington through Oct. 23. $25-$52. Call 202-347-4833.

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