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Let’s get this out of the way right up front: I am not a Ken Ludwig fan. He’s made a career with a string of farces—Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, Shakespeare in Hollywood—notable for their structural competence and their pedestrian writing; dumb blondes and genitalia gags can usually be counted upon to figure prominently, and the sense is always that the author can’t imagine why the audience wouldn’t roar. He’s the sort of playwright, in fact, capable of launching a show with a crotch joke involving the words “eggs” and “sausage”—and then laughing, loudly and largely alone, at his own broad yuks on opening night. This in fact happened last week, when Ford’s Theatre sent Ludwig’s Leading Ladies out for its East Coast bow. Sunday brunch somehow wasn’t the same.

As ever, it’s the ’50s in Ludwig’s world, and once again the showfolk are at sea in the provinces. This time it’s sleepy York, Pa., and the wandering hams are a couple of lovable swine: Leo Clark and Jack Gable, two subpar Shakespeareans playing the local Moose lodge. When the meese leave off with the mooing and let fly with the heckling—even the yokels, apparently, can sense when the Bard’s being abused—the threadbare thespians hop a train out of town without a farthing in their pockets.

And turn right back around when they spot the headline in the local paper: A decrepit York dowager wants to find her long-lost nephews so she can divvy up her $3 million and die happily, and Leo thinks he and Jack are just the British-accented twosome to stand in for the missing heirs, who conveniently shipped out for Merrie Old England when they were still quite short. Because it’s a farce, and because Ludwig has plundered Huckleberry Finn and Charley’s Aunt and Some Like It Hot for plot devices, the missing heirs turn out to be missing heiresses with—zounds!—a couple of dashed confusing gender-neutral nicknames. Fortunately, though, Clark and Gable (don’t think Ludwig’s script doesn’t take a minute to land heavily on that dubious laugh) have a trunkful of Julietwear ready at hand, and in a trice the two are swanning around in drag so stagily feminine that even in Shakespeare’s Stratford it woulda raised eyebrows. Wouldntcha know it, turns out that the old millionairess has a pretty live-in niece who’s slated to get the rest of the fortune, and the farcical formula is complete: Ian Kahn’s Leo, all dolled up as her long-lost cousin, falls madly for her—in the very moment that the lady lands the night’s first genuine laugh, with a perfectly timed double-take at the spectacle of a 6-foot man in Cleopatra’s robes.

That’s Leading Ladies in a nutshell: comedy tropes Milton Berle might have blushed to revisit in the twilight of his career, gamely served up by a cast that’s heaps classier than the material. JD Cullum’s Jack is a decidedly reluctant conspirator with a subtle and surprisingly varied sheaf of body languages to deploy, and Lacey Kohl’s sweetly daffy Audrey hails from a long line of dingbats with a thing for physical comedy. Daniel Frith does yeoman’s work as her boyfriend, Butch, who has no discernible reason for being in the play; Charlotte Rae thumps crossly about as the rich old lady, with most of Mrs. Garrett’s tics and intonations firmly intact, and John Astin (yes, Gomez Addams; it’s vintage-sitcom week down at Ford’s) makes fun work of the head Moose, who turns out to be her doctor. Patrick Kerr, too, does a smart turn, as a crabbed minister with a suspicious streak; he’s a fine foil, if a decidedly unlikely fiancé, for Karen Ziemba’s wide-eyed, good-natured Meg, and a small riot all on his own in an Act 2 bit that gives his character momentary license to loosen ever-so-snarkily up.

Ziemba’s Meg, now: She’s the one the dragged-up Leo finds himself so smitten with, a small-town girl with her eyes on a far horizon and a taste for the higher arts. Turns out that one of her most cherished memories, never mind how clueless it makes her seem when she can’t see through his disguise, is of seeing Leo perform Shakespeare some years before. Meg’s apparent blindness notwithstanding, they’re clearly made for each other, and the second act’s tomfoolery revolves chiefly around Leo’s efforts to maintain the charade and win the inheritance while simultaneously finding a way to pop in now and again as his leading-man self, so he can charm the lady into ditching her engagement and running off for a life on the stage. Complications what? Yes indeed, they ensue.

Not very convincingly, mind you, though Ziemba’s got such a way with a fluster and director Mark Rucker choreographs the improbable business so adroitly that Act 2 gathers steam until it becomes a reasonably substantial giggle almost in spite of itself. And then suddenly, there’s a moment of what almost seems like innovation—from Ken Ludwig? Could it be? Meg, midcrisis over what obviously are mounting doubts about her impending wedding, confesses that she has in fact developed romantic feelings—for one of the “girls.” Yikes! Lesbianism! In a farce! And not among the supporting characters!

Then you remember that Billy

Wilder threw an analogous curve at the end of Some Like It Hot—so innovation, not so much. And then you discover that Ludwig has introduced the complication with nothing more than its gag value in mind. The bit, sadly, goes nowhere, remaining unresolved as the farce comes galumphing to its inevitable conclusion, with con artists exposed and actors chastised and sins forgiven.

It’s a shame, too: Ziemba, who’s as deft with woeful as with wacky, finds something genuinely troubled in the momentary cloud that covers Meg’s generally sunny countenance as she makes that confession. In that fleeting instant of complexity, there’s a hint of something rich, something a more sophisticated farceur might have built a dazzling play around. Leading Ladies is a Ken Ludwig show, though. My fourth, if I’m counting right. And I’m still not a fan. CP