Like one of those flea market purveyors of mock antiques, the playwright Ken Ludwig possesses an uncanny ability to make new things seem old. It's an odd sort of theatrical specialty he practices, one that capitalizes on an audience's appetite for what it already knows.
The laughs in Ludwig's popular Broadway comedies, plays like "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo," almost always count on nostalgia, an appreciation of the hoarier tricks of the trade, the flimsy stock characters, transparent coincidences and slapstick complications you see coming from miles away. That his plays are usually set a half-century or so ago -- and in snoozy precincts of places such as Ohio and Upstate New York -- means we're headed back not only to more innocent times but also to the timeless comforts of untroubled Middle America.
What he traffics in, then, are not so much instant classics as something even rarer -- instant revivals -- and their impact can be both consoling for an audience and hell on a reviewer. The latest case in point is "Leading Ladies," an undemanding, knee-jerk comedy that premiered in Houston last year and is making its regional debut at Ford's Theatre. As staged by Mark Rucker, the production exhibits the mechanical efficiency of a well-staffed hotel -- it's eager to please -- but the show presupposes so little sophistication on the part of an audience that it turns the yuks into something cheaper than cheap. Even for old hat, this is old.
With a nod to other, more groundbreaking cross-dressing comedies -- "Some Like It Hot" is an obvious inspiration -- "Leading Ladies" follows the exploits of a pair of masculine-looking men (one with a serious 5 o'clock shadow) who fool the seriously gullible inhabitants of York, Pa., into believing they're women. Hasn't this been done to death? If you've got it in you to chuckle yet again at guys in wigs and frilly get-ups, batting their eyes at the smitten local yokels and running in terror when the yokels bat back, don't let me stand in your way. All others: You've been warned.
Good actors are often recruited for the comedies of Ludwig, one of the few Washington-based playwrights with a national reputation, and you can understand why they might get a kick out of being in his plays. The thinly drawn characters leave ample room for actors to add their own comic idiosyncrasies, and the predictable punch lines -- so middle-of-the-road that many of them could have been focus-grouped -- get the reflexive reaction a performer wants to hear. For instance, John Astin -- yes, that John Astin, Gomez Addams in the '60s sitcom "The Addams Family -- is in the cast, playing an ancient doctor who still has a thing for the ladies. It's a sweet, loosey-goosey kind of performance, a variation on the out-of-it school-dance emcee he portrayed more than 40 years ago in the film version of "West Side Story."
Astin's presence, though, also reinforces the feeling that "Leading Ladies" is a bit of a time-warp experience. In the cast with him, in fact, is Charlotte Rae -- the mother hen on another old sitcom, "The Facts of Life" -- and here she mugs pretty shamelessly as the Pennsylvania dowager the two flimflammers in drag (Ian Kahn and JD Cullum) have come to hoodwink. Broadway is represented at Ford's, too, in the person of the Tony-winning Karen Ziemba, who was featured in "Crazy for You," a long-running show of Gershwin standards stitched together by Ludwig.
They've all been gathered at Ford's as if they were the far-flung recruits for a venture in summer stock. Leo (Kahn) and Jack (Cullum) play British Shakespearean actors who, through a chain of events too contrived to regurgitate, pose as the female heirs of Rae's dyspeptic Florence and secretly fall in love with local ladies: Leo with Ziemba's Meg, a free spirit betrothed to a stick-in-the-mud minister (Patrick Kerr), and Jack with Lacey Kohl's Audrey, the requisite blond bombshell.
The acting more than fulfills the comedy's minimal requirements. You know, though, pretty much what you've got when the merriment depends on the audience's indulgence of manly-type guys making entrances in ever sillier frocks. (And on a character in drag who, meaning to say something nice to a woman about her eyes, slips up and praises her "thighs.")
Kahn and Cullum are adequate to the task, if rarely inspired. (What really original can they possibly do?) Ziemba is a satisfactory goody-two-shoes. Kerr, though, so funny as the miserable blind man on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has little chance here to display his full comic arsenal.
The set designer, John Coyne, erects a handsome interior in which the cast can cavort, but that infernal turntable on the Ford's stage, used in the scenic transitions, imbues the production with a rickety quality. It gives the impression of something past its prime, a throwback. On second thought, it suits the production completely.
Leading Ladies, by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Mark Rucker. Sets, John Coyne; costumes, Judith Dolan; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, John Gromada and Sten Severson; choreographer, Michele Lynch. With Daniel Frith. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 23 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-347-4833 or visit www.fordstheatre.org.