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Ken Ludwig returns to Signature Theatre with golf farce 'A Fox in the Fairway'

Shaped as a send-up of madcap British comedies, this Ken Ludwig production, playing at Signature Theatre through Nov. 14, keeps the action fast and the hijinks energized.

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By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ken Ludwig doesn't like the word "farce." He worries that the public holds it in low regard.

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Yet the Washington-based dramatist is one of the country's leading comic playwrights, thanks to such fat and loopy hits as the musical "Crazy for You" and the evergreen "Lend Me a Tenor," the mashup of opera and mistaken identity that was revived on Broadway last year (and is nearly always playing somewhere).

Still, when Ludwig writes about the style that's dearest to him, as he did in the current edition of the Yale Review, he identifies with a form that goes beyond what he calls "mere farce." He labels it the "great tradition" of comedy -- a big-hearted genre that runs from Shakespeare through Sheridan to "Kiss Me Kate."

Ludwig's latest venture is "A Fox on the Fairway," which follows the shenanigans of rival country clubs entering their annual grudge match. The show, now in previews at Arlington's Signature Theatre, exploits the drives -- lusty, egocentric, etc. -- of a half-dozen men and women in the rigid milieu of (hushed tones now) golf.

So what kind of play is this?

"It's a farce, for sure," says Jeff McCarthy, who plays the wily president of the host club. "It's a broad, loud, physical comedy. It's a hard workout for all six of us."

"Fox" director John Rando, whose credits include the Broadway musical "Urinetown" (with McCarthy) and comedies by Neil Simon and David Ives, praises Ludwig's fine eye, calling him a "watchmaker." Rando does indeed see Ludwig as a sort of "great tradition" throwback, saying, "He is keeping the 'Front Page' tradition, the 'Room Service' tradition, alive in the American theater."

Rando characterizes "Fox" as following the pattern established in "Tenor," which debuted on Broadway in 1989 and featured characters who the director says are "willing to burst a blood vessel" to get what they want. "It has a tight, small cast," Rando says of "Fox," and features -- yes -- "a farcical world."

Even Ludwig doesn't claim that his comedies are above cross-dressing and slapstick. "Leading Ladies," which appeared at Ford's Theatre in 2005, involved two struggling thespians who don drag to dupe a dowager out of her dough. Ten years earlier, "Moon Over Buffalo" had Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco co-starring on Broadway as has-been hams bickering and getting their repertory of plays mixed up in mid-performance. (The documentary "Moon Over Broadway" captured the real production's ups and downs.)

Still, it's easy to grant the affable Ludwig the distinction he seeks: that while farce can be ruthless and brittle, his works cast a kinder eye on their characters. Rando speaks of the "joy" and "heart" of Ludwig's comedy, and Ludwig makes it clear that's what he's about.

An ironic District tale

"I'm innately an optimistic person, a hopeful person," Ludwig says, sitting in a conference room upstairs at Signature earlier this month. "What I'm trying to do, especially in terms of my career as a whole, is write about things that are enhancing to us as human beings."

The oft-told Ludwig story is that he came to Washington in the late 1970s simply because his brother, Eugene, moved here. Both were lawyers, but Ludwig gradually withdrew from Steptoe and Johnson when "Tenor" and "Crazy for You" made it clear he really could make it writing for the stage. He still rhapsodizes about the city, saying it's been a great place to raise kids (now 14 and 18) with his wife, Adrienne George, and that the theatrical scene here is "a very happy place to be. It's just as good as any place on Earth."

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