And farce is even more difficult.
The Naples Players’ production of “Leading Ladies” demonstrates just how difficult. For a farce, this production generates surprisingly few laughs — or at least that was the case on opening night.
Yes, there are numerous doors, and they slam, but the pacing really wasn’t frantic. There are some clever, funny lines, but because of poor diction and/ or delivery, many just flew right by the audience.
The play really doesn’t take flight until late in Act II — and that’s a long time to wait to laugh, especially for a farce, which is supposed to provide non-stop hilarity.
The leading ladies of the title are two British Shakespearean actors who haven’t had much success and have resorted to performing for Elk and Moose lodges in backwater towns across America. (Their performance is a hodge-podge of some of the Bard’s greatest lines, stitched together haphazardly.)
When they learn that an elderly woman in York, Pa., is seeking her longlost relatives before she dies so that she can leave them her millions, the two decide to pretend to be her nephews, Max and Steve. The problem is Max and Steve are actually the woman’s nieces, Maxine and Stephanie.
So the actors, figuring it’s worth it for the money, dress in drag and show up on Auntie’s doorstep.
Playwright Ken Ludwig has said he was inspired by a subplot about two con men who are actors in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but his farce seems heavily influenced by “Some Like It Hot.” Not only are there two men who dress up as women, but there’s a ditzy blonde similar to Marilyn Monroe, as well as scenes where one of the actors reverts back to dressing as a man in order to woo a woman.
Robert Armstrong plays Leo Clark (pretending to be Max), all preening and ego, the cad who loves them and leaves them. But it’s his buddy, Jack Gable (played by Brad Goetz), who runs away with the show. He’s Leo’s reluctant accomplice, and his expressions of despair and panic while dressed as Stephanie are priceless.
Leo explains to the others that Stephanie is deaf and mute, so Jack has to make his up his own sign language and express his thoughts and feelings through gestures and facial expressions.
The show livens up when the two finally dress in drag and show up to receive their inheritance. With not even enough money to buy a sandwich on the train, they have to resort to wearing the Shakespearean clothing they have with them. So Leo, as Maxine, is dressed as Cleopatra, and Jack, as Stephanie, is dressed as Titania, the Fairy Queen. They are two very oddlooking women, indeed.
Costume designer Dot Auchmoody has done a fabulous job with this production. (I coveted Jack’s purple and black sleeveless frock.)
Ellice McCoy-Ullrich is perky and upbeat as Meg, a young woman who also stands to inherit money from the dying matriarch (Janet Vogel, who seems to have modeled her role after Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls.”)
Meg is engaged to Duncan (Les Prebble), a dour and hypocritical minister. With his sad sack, hangdog expressions and almost deadpan delivery, he looks a lot like Pat Paulsen when he performed on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
But that wasn’t as distracting as Charles Brown, who plays Doc Myers, the inept family doctor. With his shock of white hair, glasses and his tone of voice, he’s a ringer for Phil Donahue. Throughout the show, I kept expecting him to grab a microphone and come out into the audience to ask us how we felt about what we were hearing.
I’m not sure why Mr. Brown didn’t cut and dye his hair, or perhaps wear a wig, in order to be more in character. Or at least wear appropriate eyewear. He seemed as if he was out of the 1980s, not 1958, the year in which the play is set.
The storyline also involves plenty of Shakespeare. The two con men somehow convince the others to put on a performance of “Twelfth Night,” a show that deals with twins, mistaken identities and cross-dressing. It’s a reflection of what’s going on in “Leading Ladies.”
I wish director John McKerrow had done a better job of staging this show. The actors seemed to be performing to the audience, not interacting with each other. It’s as if they’d been told to keep facing forward while reciting their lines.
Some plays are foolproof, so funny that the lines get laughs no matter who delivers them or how. But farce is more challenging, a very difficult type of humor to perform, and this production gets it right only part of the time.
I wish there’d been a feeling of spontaneity, of slap-dash hilarity. But too many of the lines — and scenes — fall flat. (Thank God for Mr. Goetz, who provides the lion’s share of humor.)
I was dying to laugh, but unfortunately, “Leading Ladies” didn’t give me much cause to do so. ¦