Ken Ludwig is Washington’s great story of a lawyer turned playwright, with the 1989 Broadway debut of the mistaken identity farce “Lend Me a Tenor” clinching his showbiz transition. Ludwig has been a busy writer ever since, and now his first hit’s sequel, “A Comedy of Tenors,” is getting its local debut in a hard-working, door-slamming blitz at the Olney Theatre Center that finally hits a blithe stride in the second act.
That’s when a bellhop named Beppo appears as a dead ringer for opera star Tito Merelli, and what a stroke of luck! Merelli, revived from Ludwig’s first “Tenor” lark (both plays are set in the 1930s), is now storming off just hours before a splashy stadium concert because he thinks his wife is having an affair with his handsome young vocal rival.
Can Beppo the bellhop sing? Can he pass for Merelli? Will everybody in “A Comedy of Tenors” get as mixed up as the characters in Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors”?
That’s the idea, shoved down the track in Jason King Jones’s production with more frenzy than finesse until Beppo arrives in the serene form of John Treacy Egan. Beppo’s not a young man, but he’s as innocent as a child, and the show needs the charm that Egan brings as this bellhop on the edge of stardom wonders what wonderland into which he’s stumbled.
Until then, “A Comedy of Tenors” is the kind of farce that grunts and groans as it gets its improbabilities off the ground. As Saunders, the impresario promoting the star-studded concert, an appropriately addled Alan Wade is stuck with repetitive explanatory bits declaring into the phone that the concert starts in three hours, and it looks like everything will go wrong! The setting is a hotel room in Paris, with two bedroom doors, a door to the hallway and a balcony from which desperate characters seeking a quick exit might jump.
The bedroom farce misinterpretations that drive the plot are standard issue, and the mechanics clatter. But Egan, doubling delightfully as Beppo and Merelli, has some juicy slugfests as Merelli with his tempestuous wife, Maria, played with operatic temperament by Emily Townley (and with both actors ladling Italian accents thicker than yesterday’s marinara). It’s a bonus that Egan can sing, as can Alan Naylor as the rival; Matthew Schleigh as Saunders’s young assistant; and Patricia Hurley as a randy Russian soprano.
The engine warms up after intermission, and if the sentimental ending oddly comes to rest on a minor character, Ludwig dashes off an encore of the “Tenor” coda in which the entire show is pantomimed in 90 seconds. For too long, though, the merry madness of old school farce eludes the show’s eager grasp.
A Comedy of Tenors, by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Jason King Jones. About one hour and 50 minutes. Scenic design, Charlie Calvert; costumes, Seth M. Gilbert; lights, Sonya Dowhaluk; sound design, Justin Schmitz. Through May 12 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. $59-$79. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.