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Newsies—sorry, that’s Disney’s Newsies—is Arena Stage’s designated holiday season book-balancer this year, but if you like your reassuring, sentimental fare less musical and more modest in scope, Ken Ludwig’s romantic two-hander Dear Jack, Dear Louise might be just what the Army doctor ordered.
Ludwig’s father was an Army physician during World War II, first stateside in Oregon and later in France. Ludwig’s new play is a dramatization of the three-year correspondence between his future dad and his future mom, a musical theater performer in New York City, before they finally met in person, having found love for the price of a stamp. Well, a lot of stamps. One needn’t be the offspring of parents who wrote faithfully for years before they ever laid eyes on one another—something I never learned about my own folks until my late 20s—to find it utterly charming.
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That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a few wrinkles to iron out: The finale, in director Jackie Maxwell’s otherwise beautifully paced world premiere production, feels abrupt. We’re in no hurry, after all, to get away from the two pen pals, because Maxwell has cast the show perfectly: Jake Epstein and Amelia Pedlow both channel an outsized earnestness that’s immensely seductive. If they both seem impossibly virtuous, that can be excused on the grounds that they’re presenting highly curated versions of themselves to one another in prose. Their dialogue is, in fact, a recitation of their letters, even when they interrupt one another. Only rarely do we learn something about one correspondent that they’ve not volunteered to the other in writing. When Jack receives word from Louise that she has met his parents, for example — “They’re like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, if Norman Rockwell painted Jews!” she reports — he pours himself a stiff drink.
Ludwig is a D.C. resident whose plays have been performed all over the world, but because his first Broadway show was the Tony Award-winning comedy Lend Me a Tenor, his reputation as a dramatist who deals mostly in farce has stuck. Dear Jack, Dear Louise represents a more intimate comic style, one that I suspect demands more of its actors. For 90 minutes Pedlow and Epstein are talking to one another but looking out at the audience, with some clever interjections, pauses, and other bits of nonverbal syncopation to reflect the unpredictable pace of wartime mail. That they’re able to pull off these technical performances without seeming artificial is a credit to their instincts and Maxwell’s direction.
Pedlow’s speaking voice sometimes seems a little too sing-songy for ordinary speech, something I noticed in her otherwise excellent recent performance as Sister James in Studio Theatre’s strong production of Doubt, but it’s a good fit for Louise. The character is a singer trying to land a role in a Broadway show, and the mediated nature of her budding romance with a man she’s never met calls for a slightly more rarified mode of expression. Her life in a New York boarding house is more varied from day-to-day than Jack’s austere existence as physician attending critically wounded soldiers. Beowulf Boritt’s simple set, which surrounds Epstein with Army-issue foot lockers and Pedlow with a more ramshackle and comfortable set of furniture, expresses this idea eloquently. But I’d gladly listen to a radio drama adaptation of Dear Jack, Dear Louise, too.
To Dec. 29 at 1101 6th St. SW. $41–$95. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.