Ken Ludwig’s idea of funny: A starlet who thinks Marie Curie discovered the first antibiotic. And who pronounces it “penis-cillin.”

OK, that is a giggle—if you’re a Phi Delt. But it’s not frat rats paying the freight at Arena Stage, and it’s not Marie Curie’s name in the title of Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood, so what we’ve got here is a throwaway joke without much of a target audience. And what Arena’s got here, in the world-premiere production that’s opening the theater’s 53rd season, is a farce without much finesse.

It might have been otherwise: A Midsummer Night’s Dream proved that in setting fairies to mixing it up with mortals, a playwright can generate laughs as smart as they are smutty—while saying a few things about what it means to be human, besides. And Ludwig’s premise, which finds Midsummer’s mischievous Puck and majestic Oberon at large on Jack Warner’s Hollywood lot while Teutonic auteur Max Reinhardt struggles to commit their story to film, sounds as if it ought to be a literate sort of hoot.

Sometimes, in fact, it is. The show’s few genuinely charming scenes catch Casey Biggs’ Oberon courting Maggie Lacey’s bright-eyed Olivia, for whom the fairy king falls even before he’s figured out where Puck’s magical miscalculations have landed them. Oberon tends to speak, though he doesn’t seem to know it, in artful phrases lifted whole from Shakespeare, and the young actress, recognizing every quote, responds as if he’d challenged her to a game of Name That Play. So he’ll lay on a smooth line—something on the order of “Upon your words/Sit laurel victory, and smooth success be strewed before your feet”—and she’ll say, “That’s Cleopatra,” whereupon he’ll look over his shoulder and say “Where?” And she, quite naturally, will think he’s being funny. It’s smart and lightly done, and Lacey and Biggs are lovely together; she’s fresh and winsome, he’s got gravitas enough to keep Oberon from losing his dignity along with his bearings, and the two of them generate real warmth in their scenes.

What goes on around their loving couple, unfortunately, isn’t quite as winning. Reinhardt owes his production greenlight to that boss-boffing starlet—Lydia Lansing (Alice Ripley), so cheap she’s brass-toned where other shrill blondes would be brassy—but having Lydia on board means having a leading lady so dim she thinks Shakespeare sounds as good backward as forward. As if that weren’t enough to drive an artiste to distraction, Reinhardt gets a visit from Hollywood censor Will Hays, who’s got his knickers in a twist about the bit where Midsummer’s Titania gets cozy with the donkey-man. The director is understandably relieved, then, to discover that he’s got a couple of ready replacements when the actors playing his Oberon and Puck are suddenly unavailable—and voilà, the “real” immortals are suddenly on the road to Hollywood stardom.

It’s a thoroughfare, naturally enough, that gets bumpy pretty quick. As in Midsummer, Oberon’s penchant for floral love charms and Puck’s inattention to detail result in a cast party awash in lust-crazed movieland types. Max, Lydia, and gossip queen Louella Parsons are all chasing Warner’s yes man of an assistant, while both Olivia and the matinee idol Dick Powell have taken a shine to supporting player Joe E. Brown (in drag, natch, because he’s been playing Thisbe in the play within the play that’s being made into a movie). Hays, of course, has fallen madly for himself, having spotted not another person but his own image in a mirror after his run-in with the magic flower; much strained hilarity ensues.

The trouble isn’t that this premise isn’t ripe with delightful possibilities—it’s that farce is a fragile thing; and Ludwig brings to it neither the writerly gifts of an Alan Ayckbourn, the structural brilliance of a Michael Frayn, nor the emotional insight of the more serious masters who’ve essayed the form—Pinter, say, or Stoppard. His dialogue is perfunctory in its humor, his coincidences rarely seem other than contrived, and when he thinks he has Something to Say (as he does several times in Shakespeare in Hollywood), it usually turns out to be something pedestrian. Ludwig, harsh as it may be to say so, is a technician, however adept, and so his plays never quite achieve the giddy insanity that makes a farce worth all the fuss.

Arena, to its credit, has labored mightily to turn an unpolished script into an entertaining evening. Director Kyle Donnelly orchestrates the mayhem with confidence—that poolside party where everyone’s romantic wires get crossed devolves into a crisply choreographed slapstick disaster—and more than once adds emotional weight to a scene that doesn’t have any on the page. In one lovely unscripted moment toward the end, Donnelly brings Hugh Nees’ sweetly lumpish Brown onstage, still in his party dress, to overhear the de-magicked Olivia as she shrugs off her inexplicable desire for him. He’s genuinely crestfallen—which is somehow moving (and deliciously meta, if you remember that Brown was the actor who rowed blithely off into the moonlight with a dragged-up Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot).

Emily Donahoe makes a perfectly petulant Puck, romping up the Hollywood Hills and down Rodeo Drive with all the impulsiveness and happy greed of that perpetually adolescent sprite. Everett Quinton plays Hays as an uproariously prissy tightass, reveling in the character’s self-righteous tirades and comparing himself passionately to a summer’s day once he’s under the spell of that damn flower. It’s a showy performance—big enough to be off-putting for those averse to that sort of thing, as the sour assessment in the paper of record indicates—but you’re just as likely to think he’s a riot.

Ellen Karas, whom I remember from The Women and Blithe Spirit as a striking, sexy woman, is all but unrecognizable as Parsons, screeching merrily away under the Venus flytrap of a hat Jess Goldstein has given her. (Her outfits are the

most outrageous of a sumptuous bunch.) Rick Foucheux is pitch-perfect as the hard-charging Warner, and David Fendig makes a sweetly funny swain of Powell, the heartthrob smitten with an oblivious Olivia.

Oh: Robert Prosky is in the show, too. The distinguished stage and screen veteran is as deft as ever in the director’s role, but his character isn’t really the story’s focus; A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be Reinhardt’s project, but Shakespeare in Hollywood is Oberon and Olivia’s show—which means Prosky’s got next to nothing to do. He does it with marvelous aplomb, though: If Ludwig could only make theater look as easy as Prosky does, this Hollywood fable might be boffo at the box office. CP

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