The attempts of two well-known but down-on-their-luck British Shakespearian actors to ensure their economic futures form the pivot of the plot of “Leading Ladies,” Ken Ludwig’s latest hit, playing through Saturday, October 11, at Off Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell. Known for such Broadway and West End successes as “Crazy for You,” “Lend Me a Tenor,” and “Moon over Buffalo,” Ludwig here explores the comic possibilities of cross-dressing; the audience is in on the secret but the other characters aren’t.
The two actors, Leo Clark and Jack Gable, played by Patrick Andrae and Joe Sabatino, have been reduced to performing famous scenes from Shakespeare at meetings at Moose Lodges and other similar venues. When the play opens, the two men are in Amish country in the vicinity of York, Pennsylvania. They learn that Florence Snider (Elaine Snyder), a wealthy old woman who lives in York and is apparently at death’s door, has left two-thirds of her estate to two cousins. But no one has heard from the cousins in a long time, and people are beginning to assume they are no longer living. The two men decide they could impersonate these cousins and claim the money for themselves. Only when they have almost arrived in York do they discover that the cousins were actually women. Clearly they need to modify their strategy, but since these out-of-work actors are traveling with a large trunk of costumes, they simply don women’s outfits and continue with their plan.
The beneficiary of the third portion of the inheritance is Meg Snider (Vanessa Oates), the old woman’s niece. Meg is engaged to the Reverend Duncan Woolery (Ed Teti), a smarmy minister, who claims to be looking forward to enjoying the good works he can accomplish with Meg’s inheritance, to say nothing of a house in Nantucket. Indeed, he is anxious to see that Meg inherit the entire fortune, and when it looks likely to him that the two strangers will achieve their goal, he works hard to bring the police onto the scene.
Most of the action takes place in Florence Snider’s house; the year is 1958. Florence is attended to by the inept Doctor Myers (Curtis Kaine), who keeps taking her pulse and telling her she is dead, a habit she finds more and more annoying. Two other characters round out the cast, Audrey (Katie Munley), a ditzy young blonde, and Butch Myers, Audrey’s admirer.
Since “Leading Ladies” is billed as a comedy, the audience knows it will have a happy ending, but Ludwig has been very clever at finding ways to make that possibility seem remote. Most of the cast members are Off-Broadstreet veterans, and they are generally adroit at keeping the audience in suspense as to how this can possibly work out.
Patrick Andrae, who plays Leo, is a research chemist at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. The veteran of some five Off-Broadstreet shows, he was most recently seen last year in “Nobody’s Perfect.” Joe Sabatino is a recent graduate of Rider University, who had an important role in the Off-Broadstreet production of “The Twilight of the Golds” this past June.
As the incompetent doctor, Curtis Kaine is making his 14th appearance at Off-Broadstreet. Many of the theater’s regulars will surely remember his performance as the police inspector in the 2006 production of “Frankenstein.” Ed Teti, an Off-Broadstreet veteran who has moved out of the area, does a good job with the minister, making clear to the audience the connection between his smarminess and his single-minded nastiness when pursuing his goal. Katie Munley is a student at the College of New Jersey; she puts in a convincing performance as a character whose function in the play is not entirely functional.
The cast of “Leading Ladies” includes three newcomers to Off- Broadstreet. Elaine Wallace is splendid as Florence Snider, the old woman who refuses to accept the doctor’s verdict that she’s dead (although she does experience several attacks, usually minor ones, on stage). She becomes increasingly vital as the evening goes on. Vanessa Oates as Meg is at her strongest when trying to keep her fiance under control). Butch is played by Michael Hollinshead, a senior at Rider University.
Bob Thick has both designed and directed the show. This kind of show presents to the director the challenge of hiding from the audience exactly what’s going on without making what’s on stage incomprehensible. And when a director is faced with a playwright who seems willing to sacrifice consistency for a laugh, the problems multiply. But Thick has once again managed to satisfy the audience without giving up the play. His single set allows plenty of room for the actors to move quickly and enough doors and stairways for them to have reasonable ways to escape. Costume designer Ann Raymond has devised amusing, indeed often wacky, ways to make the two large men look as if they thought others would think they were stylishly dressed women.
Unlike many other Off-Broadstreet productions, this one does not have live music. After the lights go down, before the action begins, one can hear the Swingle Singers performing Bach fugues, an interesting comment on the action to follow. All in all this reviewer seconds the producer’s notes, which says “Leading Ladies” is for those who “need to escape and laugh a bit.”
Leading Ladies, weekends through Saturday, October 11, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Ken Ludwig farce. $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.