Actors Co-op has found the perfect complement to the concurrently running drama of The Elephant Man—Ken Ludwig’s hilarious gender-bending Leading Ladies.  What better way to put an end to the post-summer blues than by spending a couple hours with the oddest couple of men in drag since Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon put on lipstick and hose in Some Like It Hot? Unlike Tony and Jack, though, our two unlikely “heroines” are not on the run from the mob but rather in search of a few million dollars to be inherited if only they can convince a dying woman that they are her lone (and long lost) female relatives. Here’s how it goes:

It’s 1958 and down-on-his-luck British Shakespearean actor Leo Clark and his best friend and partner Jack Gable have been touring American Moose and Elks Lodges with their two-man “Best of Shakespeare” show, into which the two thespians manage to fit in nearly every famous Shakespearean quote in the book. Trouble is, the show is a bust, and “Clark/Gable” (get it?) need to find a way to put money into their non-existent bank accounts. The local newspaper reports MGM’s plans to mount a film version of Julius Caesar in Los Angeles, starring James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius, something which Clark thinks might be just up their alley. After all, asks Leo, “how many Shakespearean actors do they have in America?  Six?”

An even better plan pops up when Leo and Jack notice a newspaper headline which announces “Dying Woman Seeks Loved Ones; Large Fortune At Stake.” It turns out that a Pennsylvania millionairess named Florence Snider, currently on her deathbed, has lost touch with two of her three closest relatives, Max and Steve, whom she has not seen since they left for England decades ago as adolescents. Should the two turn up, they’ll share her $3 million fortune with her niece Meg. All they have to do is “wait for her to kick the bucket,” declares Leo, and their futures are secure.

Leo and Jack soon learn more about Max and Steve from local resident Audrey, a ditzy roller-skating waitress at the Tastee Bite.  She informs them that Max, the older one, is in the theater, and Steve … Well, poor Steve has been deaf and dumb since birth.  Inspiration hits Leo! They will show up on Mrs. Snider’s doorstep and claim to be Steve and Max!  Then comes the hitch. Max turns out to be short for Maxine and Steve is short for Stephanie. The two missing relatives are not Mrs. Snider’s nephews, they’re her nieces!

No problem, says Leo.  They’ve got a suitcase full of costumes, including    women’s. They’re Shakespearean actors, aren’t they, and in Shakespeare’s time, all women’s roles were played by men, weren’t they?  They’ll don these gowns and show up on Mrs. Snider’s doorstep and 2/3 of the fortune will be theirs for the taking! When Jack protests, Leo snaps back, “For $2 million dollars, the question is, ‘Which dress will you wear?’”

Meanwhile, Meg’s fiancé, the Reverend Duncan Wooley, is not at all happy about the impending arrival of the missing nieces. He was, after all, planning on using the entire $3 million for his Foundation.  (Duncan it seems is quite the tightwad with money. There will be no engagement ring for Meg and no honeymoon.)  This “Maxine and Stephanie” have got to be imposters, Duncan decides, and he will make it his mission to prove it.

Laughter, surprises, and drag ensue.

Leo is immediately smitten with Meg, and Jack has already fallen for Audrey. Meg is not the only one who’s already taken, though. Audrey’s boyfriend Butch also has marriage on his mind, though Doc Myers, his uncle, advises him, “Marry
(Stephanie) for cash.  I married for love. Biggest mistake I ever made.”

Will Leo win Meg’s heart from her stingy fiancé? Will Meg pull an Anne Heche and fall for Maxine (not knowing that Maxine is really Leo in women’s wear)? Will Audrey choose Jack over Butch? Will Meg and Audrey ever figure out that Max and Leo aren’t two really big girls from England? Will the reverend prove that the two nieces are frauds? Will the real Maxine and Stephanie show up wanting their inheritance? Will Mrs. Snider die?  (The last question is a good one, since the old lady seems healthier by the day since her beloved English relatives have shown up at her doorstep.)

Naturally, these questions will be answered in the course of Leading Ladies. The joy of this Ken Ludwig treat is not in the answers themselves, but in the rollicking road leading to them.

With director Richard Israel at the helm, Co-op audiences are assured of an inspired production blessed with precision comic timing and laughs galore.

The hilarious duo of Co-op mainstay Bruce Ladd (Leo) and guest artist Kyle Nudo (Jack) hit every note as the marginally talented British Shakespearean partners in crime, and are even better once the trousers come off and the dresses come on. Ladd’s Maxine is a cross between Loretta Young and Hope Emerson while Nudo’s Stephanie blends Doris Day and a young Phyllis Diller to perfection, and both are masters (mistresses?) of physical comedy.

The pair receive terrific support from Tawny Mertes (scrumptiously scatterbrained as Audrey), Gus Corrado (as an entertainingly inept Doc), Carl J. Johnson (amusingly fussy as Meg’s oh-so-wrong fiancé Duncan), and Aaron Misakian (as an adorably sweet but slightly dimwitted Butch).  As Florence, the millionairess who would not die, Barbara Kerr Condon gets laugh after laugh with her high-speed old-lady shuffle and crotchety squeak of a voice.  Finally, there is the enchanting Karla Droege, comedienne and leading lady as Meg.  Like You Can’t Take It With You’s Alice, a role she’d be perfect for, Droege’s Meg is the (relatively) “normal” character who anchors Leading Ladies in reality, and the scene in which Meg recites Shakespeare from memory is magic.

Lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick once again proves himself one of the finest in our city, no more so than in the aforementioned scene in which subtle lighting changes enhance the magic of Meg’s words, and then bring us back to reality once she has finished her recitation.  Stephen Gifford’s set, like the one he designed for the Co-op’s 1776, fills the Crossley Terrace stage and then some, this time with a gorgeously detailed 1950s Pennsylvania home.  Cricket Myers works her usual wonders with her sound design, Julie Hall has choreographed a charming Act 2 dance sequence, and Richard Soto has choreographed an appropriately funny fight scene. Costumes by Blanca Honigstein are mostly faithful to the late 1950s, with the exception of Meg’s sexy low-cut knee-lenghth cocktail dress, gorgeous but wrong for the era. Honigstein’s best designs are, as might be expected, the extra large ones she has created for the two “Leading Ladies,” as well as some deliciously cheesy Shakespearean costumes for Doc and Butch.

Leading Ladies is the perfect antidote for economic crisis blues.  It won’t get you back any money you may have lost in the stock market, but it’s guaranteed to make you forget your losses, if only for two wildly funny hours.

Actors Co-op, Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 12, 2008
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly

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