The setup: Ken Ludwig, great American farceur, has penned such solidly wild comedies as I Hate Hamlet, Lend Me a Tenor, Moon over Buffalo, and the mystifyingly underproduced Leading Ladies.
Since all those plays are about show-business people (mostly actors), I was curious to see what Ludwig did with the world of country-club golf in one of his newer scripts, The Fox on the Fairway, currently being presented by Actors Theatre under the direction of Matthew Wiener (Phoenix Theatre's Noises Off).
The execution: This script is simply sloppy and stupid compared to Ludwig's stronger comedies. The element that makes shows like Tenor work so well is the giddy, volatile meetings between celebrities and their provincial fans. In Fox, everyone's a provincial fan, they're all acquainted with one another from the get-go, and the conflicts that have been inserted are just about as hoary, overblown, and insulting as they get.
For example, there's a pretty young female character (Louise, played as well as can be expected, as the saying goes, by Ashley Stults) who isn't particularly bright, but her diminished intelligence doesn't make her any funnier. And the plot is simultaneously convoluted and an afterthought: Another woman makes a romantic commitment to a man who's spent the whole play trying to destroy the thing she's most fulfilled by -- and we never find out whether he's changed his mind.
Meanwhile, another romance is derailed by an easily addressed problem, the solution to which no one can think of until narcotics have been administered. (It's further complicated by Louise's uncharacteristic tendency to be easily insulted.) Whether someone qualifies for membership in Quail Valley Country Club (whose Tap Room is brilliantly, hysterically rendered by scene designer Kimb Williamson) is blown off at one point and a matter of grave importance later on (when it's no longer particularly important).
What you'd typically hope for in a case like this -- that the production would make up for the weaknesses on the page -- happens only sporadically; in general, Wiener has the cast shooting for the broadest, fluffiest portrayals possible. That's an intentional strategy that can actually work to keep farces light and sparkling -- but it doesn't do so, here, and the dialogue is so loud and shrill throughout that I wished someone in the lobby had been handing out devices to impair our hearing.
The commitment to superficiality leads some of the characters to play even worse than they're written. Muriel (Johanna Carlisle) is described as efficient, practical, and cold, and costumer Lois K. Myers has made her look like a coughed-up owl pellet in outfits that are merely unnecessarily ugly, not funny-ugly or even upscale-tweedy-ugly. Myers manages home runs (yeah, that's baseball, but getting holes in one or coming in under par just doesn't sound good) with weird, outrageous golf outfits for the gentlemen and every revealing gown and pair of platform stilettos for cougar Pamela (Maren Maclean), but it's as though the play hates Carlisle.
Maclean, along with Gene Ganssle and Kyle Sorrell, who plays the traditional "male juvenile," are the more apparently comfortable half of the cast. It's a crap shoot which, if any, of these characters wind up likable (except for the milquetoasty youngest couple, there are no real "good guys"), and it's entirely due to these three actors that theirs do. Maclean, in particular, keeps her face and body in constant motion that could be annoying as all hell but manages to be adorable.
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The pacing is appropriately brisk, but none of the slapstick is bravura-level. This is the sort of ultra-innocuous play that may help build and retain a subscriber base but is disappointing for a grazer of stage delicacies, even in a season like this one when a mindless comedy feels like a good prospect.
The verdict: When the coolest part of a farce is the set, it's kind of sad. Yet the work of some of our Valley's finest theater folk is on display here, so this production is, though uneven and flimsy, interesting to watch -- and there are moments when the humor really clicks.
The Fox on the Fairway continues through Sunday, February 10, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. For tickets, $20.50 to $39.50, call 602-252-8497 or order tickets to Actors Theatre performances online. Student and senior discounts and same-day "rush" prices are also available.