In the world’s current state, perhaps we need to take a cue from renowned journalist Norman Cousins, who fought his prolonged struggle with serious illness for 26 years by watching Marx Brothers films and other comedies. The newest farce by Ken Ludwig, “The Fox on the Fairway,” now in previews at George Street Playhouse and opening on Friday, March 25, may just fill the bill for us.
Ken Ludwig delighted at every turn with “Lend Me a Tenor,” which played on Broadway from 1989 to 1990, and at George Street Playhouse in 2005 under the direction of artistic director David Saint. Ludwig’s musical “Crazy for You” ran four years on Broadway and in London, as well as a considerable list of other comedies. Last season’s Broadway revival of “Lend Me a Tenor” was a personal favorite as, though I was feeling dreadful at the time, I found myself laughing out loud — a lot. It was a perfect tonic. “The New York Times” called “Lend Me a Tenor” “one of the two great farces by a living writer.” Now we have a chance to see this writer’s latest play “The Fox in the Fairway.”
David Saint has helmed a number of wonderful comedies at George Street, including the recent “Sylvia.” And we can count on him to gather a cast that can delight. As a holiday gift to George Street audiences in December 1998 and 2005, Saint directed the anti-carol “Inspecting Carol.”
George Street regulars will remember the story of the wild antics in a small regional theater company trying to stage Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” while juggling back-stage intrigues and the giant threat of the arrival of a mystery evaluator from the National Endowment for the Arts. Of course they target the wrong newcomer as their evaluator and though this person gives the most hilariously inept audition as Richard III, they welcome him to the cast to play Tiny Tim. The trade publication Variety’s review of the 2005 George Street production announced that this audition “must find Laurence Olivier spinning in his grave.” The real-life perpetrator was the wonderful comic actor Peter Scolari.
Scolari returns to George Street to lead a troupe of farceurs in “The Fox on the Fairway.” He says he finds the environment at George Street nurturing. “We are all there because we want to be, and the personal and professional connections make for a good combination,” he says via cell phone, as he disembarked in New Brunswick from the train from Manhattan, made a deposit at a bank, and proceeded to the day’s rehearsal. He explains why this feeling of security is so vital. “We have to take big risks to perfect the impossible timing of farce. It’s actually dangerous for the actors. You have to create a physical life where impossible action happens. On some days it can be terrifying to rehearse, but David is fantastic at supporting us.”
Explaining the difference between farce and a comedy, he says that in a Neil Simon play, the jokes almost land themselves. “In farce, you’re running around, throwing an expensive vase about the stage, and everything is always in jeopardy. I defy an audience not to lose its balance a little.” The result: laughter.
What’s his “key” for playing farce? “On a personal level, it’s courage. You have to pretend to have confidence in places where you don’t. Otherwise the energy will drop out and the comic balloon will deflate.”
In a video posted on the website for the Signature Theater in Arlington Virginia, during the run of “The Fox on the Fairway,” which had its world premiere there a few months ago, Ludwig talks about his inspiration for “Fox on the Fairway.” He had been looking for a premise for a new play, and it suddenly came to him as he was on the golf course playing with friends: “Why not golf? It’s innately funny, with guys wearing funny clothes trying to get a small ball into a small hole — as if it is all very important.” Ludwig spent time with the cast during the final days of rehearsal, fine tuning the play,.
The play begins as the Quail Valley Country Club prepares to take on its archrival, Crouching Squirrel, in the annual inter-club tournament. There is the game, several love affairs, a disappearing diamond, as well as an exploding vase, to name just a few of the plot complications.
The show’s world premiere received wide acclaim. The Washington City Paper wrote: “A grand slam! A slam dunk! A Dunkin’ Donut hole! A hole in one! [A Fox on the Fairway] hums like a well-oiled machine but retains its human soul.”
Actor Peter Scolari was born and grew up in the New Rochelle/ Scarsdale area. His dad was a lawyer, but perhaps Scolari’s artistic genes come from his grandfather on his mother’s side who was a musician with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra. Scolari appeared in all of his high school plays, but the magic struck when he was performing the role of Finch in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” when he was a junior. Before that, he had thought he’d probably be a lawyer like his dad.
“There’s a scene at the end of the first act where I decided to create some extra stage business. I got a couple of laughs for it and had sort of a white light experience. I got offstage and no sooner was I in the wings than I realized not that I wanted to be an actor or that I was going to try to be an actor, but in point of fact, I was one. And the decision had been made for me. There was never any revisitation of that subject.”
Robert Morse, the actor who played Finch in the Broadway production of “How to Succeed,” also had an impact on Scolari’s dream for success. One of the first Broadway plays that Scolari saw was “Sugar” with Morse. When he and his friend had caught the purse that Morse’s character threw into the audience, they decided that would give them an entree to backstage. And it did. They met Morse who was very gracious to them. He was a real idol of Scolari’s and people often described him as a “young Robert Morse.” “I took that as high praise.”
He attended Occidental College in Los Angeles (“three or four years before Obama,” he adds), where he was a theater major. However, the opportunity for a job as an apprentice at the Colonnade Theater in New York City moved him East where he also enrolled as a literature major at City College. At the Colonnade, he honed his acting skills along with other “beginning” actors including Jeff Goldblum, Danny DeVito, and Rhea Perlman. Obviously, there was an impressive emphasis on comedy. He never did graduate from college as he started getting acting jobs. “I had steady employment and got my Equity card in 1974, kept working, and never looked back.”
Over the years, he has been in great demand for comedy on stage, in films, and on television. His numerous performances on television include roles in “Bosom Buddies” with Tom Hanks (1980-’82) and “Newhart” (1984-’90), the latter earning him three Emmy nominations. Not totally typed as a comic actor, he also appeared in “E.R.” and “The West Wing,” and in films for television including “The Ryan White Story” with George C. Scott and “Perfect Harmony” with Darren McGavin.
He says that “Bosom Buddies” is a “blur to me now,” but the friendships with all of the cast members made a lasting impact, especially his friendship with Hanks. “Tom and I remain close, and that’s what stays.” He knows that they were closer than the “Bosom Buddies” in the series story line. “Our friendship has changed into something out of literature. One guy goes on to be a big star. I haven’t died and gone away, but the gulf in fame and fortune is dramatic.” Hanks has influenced him as a man and as a friend, he says, and always has an eye out for his buddy and encourages him. “He saw the recent HBO pilot that I made and E-mailed to praise my work.”
The entire “Bosom Buddies” cast got together last spring for a reunion and suddenly found themselves acting like a “bunch of 20-somethings,” says Scolari, remembering how they had started out together in the business and had continued to “look out for each other.”
During this time, he also had a memorable checkout-line experience. He saw Robert Morse ahead of him on express line at a Studio City supermarket and wondered whether he had the courage to approach him again as he had when he saw “Sugar.” To his amazement, Morse waited for him. He had seen Scolari’s television work and remembered that he had been the kid who came backstage in New York.
Scolari always claims New York as his home and is lucky that, in addition to his performances at George Street, his current television work is New York based. He will appear in a film with award-winning independent filmmaker Lena Dunham who authored, directed, and starred in the indie hit “Small Furniture.” Scolari describes her work as “edgy, oversexed energy.” He plays her dad in an upcoming HBO series and is doing a pilot for FX — “if they pull it all together,” he says.
When you see “The Fox on the Fairway” at George Street, notice in the program that Scolari thanks his kids in his bio. He is a divorced dad with four kids: “Keaton, Cali, Nick, and Joe2.” When I questioned the “2,” he admits it is just wordplay. I guess his comic mind just can’t resist. (It’s “Joe, too” written as “Joe2.”) The two older guys, 22 and 20, are in college. The younger two, 11 and 10, live in New York with their mother and, according to Scolari, are both “aspiring artists,” of course.
The Fox on the Fairway, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, March 23 and 24; opening night Friday, March 25, 8 p.m. New farce set in a golf club tournament, written by Ken Ludwig and directed by David Saint. Runs through Sunday, April 17. $29.50 to $79.50. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.