Considering how few contemporary practitioners there are of dramatic farce (not an oxymoron), Ken Ludwig deserves our praise not only because his plays are carrying on the age-old tradition but he has also come closer than most to mastering this complexly constructed genre that has inspired and sometimes even confounded many playwrights from Plautus to Moliere to George S. Kaufman.
As many of us have already been engulfed and entertained by the outrageous situations and comical schtick that propelled Ludwig’s hugely popular “Lend Me a Tenor,” now considered as a modern classic, it is especially gratifying to report that this follow-up is not only in the same league but even more consistently hilarious. This also means that the McCarter Theater Center has a huge hit on its hands, one that fully deserved the roar of approval it got from the audience on the night that I attended.
Whether you were previously smitten or not by some of Ludwig’s previous antic comedic romps, such as “Moon Over Buffalo, “A Fox on the Fairway,” or more recently “Baskerville,” you may be assured that the characters he has assembled this time (some of whom will hopefully be familiar) have been refreshingly re-observed but also funnier than before. Here a trio of temperamental tenors (are there any other kind?) one wife, one lover, and a few significant others have been recruited to create havoc, make love to the wrong person, slam the usual number of doors, leap head first off a balcony, hide, dress, and undress in corresponding bedrooms — with one pretending to be who he is not.
An absurdist situation involving tenors who suddenly quit, a lookalike hotel porter who amazingly sings, a pickled tongue that speaks (don’t ask), and a nervous producer who cannot keep the preparations from spiraling out of control and into complete chaos. I suspect it is a plus for McCarter audiences to feel the slickness of the more polished performances that were most likely still in the progressive stage when the play premiered earlier this season at the Cleveland Play House. As it should, the play with its many stunts and silly schtick galore moves along at breakneck speed. But it is Ludwig’s gleeful almost giddy text that will keep you laughing, sometimes even hoping for a breather.
“A Comedy of Tenors” takes place in 1936 two years after the events that take place in “Lend Me a Tenor.” The plot, or more truthfully the situation, requires no knowledge of the former play for an audience to become delighted by the continued frolics and frustrations that beset the world-class tenor Tito Merelli (Bradley Dean) as he arrives in Paris, accompanied (once again) by his tempestuous wife, Maria (Antoinette LaVecchia), to sing at a gala concert. The gimmick is that he is contracted to sing with two other tenors, Max (Rob McClure) and Carlo (Bobby Conton Thornton), for what has been promoted by their high-anxiety producer, Saunders (Ron Orbach), as “the biggest concert in the history of Paris.”
All the action takes place in a luxurious suite in a swanky Paris hotel (lavishly designed by Charlie Corcoran to incorporate both traditional and art deco decor) in which a little hanky-panky is already in progress. Unknown to Tito is the affair going on between his beguiling daughter, Mimi (Kristen Martin), and Carlo, who Tito not only disapproves but mistakenly believes is having an affair with his wife.
Add the singing hotel porter (also played by Dean) — who, except for his mustache, is the spitting image of Tito — and the sexy Russian soprano Tatiana (Lisa Brescia) who, unbeknownst to Maria, once had a torrid affair with Tito. I also should mention that Max, who was Saunders’ assistant in “Lend Me a Tenor” and his now his son-in-law, is anxious to get through the concert before his wife (unseen) goes into labor.
The shenanigans unfold in close to real time with the concert scheduled to begin in two hours. It remains for Saunders to keep his temper-prone tenors and their entourage from killing each other before they actually get to sing. It would be cruel to divulge or give you details of some of the outrageous behavior that is guided by the play’s director Stephen Wadsworth. Although his primary metier is grand opera, he has also won praise for his direction of classic comedies by Marivaux and Moliere at McCarter. The ensemble has been brilliantly corralled to work seamlessly as a team, but also individually as shameless scene-stealers.
Scene-stealers include McClure, who won plaudits in the title role in “Chaplin: The Musical” and as the nerdy hero of “Honeymoon in Vegas,” is all nerves and jitters as the newest operatic sensation Max, whose fine voice is matched more than once by an awesome grand-jete. Veteran actor Orbach fumes and fusses funnily as the entrepreneurial Saunders, while Brescia slithers seductively into the arms of the wrong man.
Thornton and Martin may be the best-looking pair of lovers, but they cannot hold a candle to the demonstrations of passion-in-excess as exhibited by the pretentiously posturing Dean and tantrums of the hot-blooded LaVecchia. I almost forgot to mention the cheering of the audience after the great operatic moments throughout the play.
When it comes to hot, the stunning costumes designed by couture genius William Ivey Long are as apt to dazzle us as much as do the performances. Also be prepared for a whirlwind of a mimed windup in which the entire cast reprise all the loony action in the play in two minutes. “A Comedy of Tenors” has all the makings of another huge success for Ludwig both in regional theaters and on Broadway, where I expect it will land . . . hopefully before any of the tenors quit.
A Comedy of Tenors, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton, through Sunday, November 1, $25 to $75. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.