Ken Ludwig Returns the Love
A Talk with the Author of ‘A Fox on the Fairway’, now at Signature Theater
The eminently successful playwright Ken Ludwig insists that no one has ever called him a dinosaur.
“My kids maybe sometimes,” he said. “But as far as I remember, no one has said that to my face or in print.”
Well, there’s always a first time. Ken Ludwig is something of a dinosaur. And I mean that entirely as a compliment.
In the theater world, Ludwig is like one of these environmentalists that runs all over the world trying to save species of animals from extinction.
In Ludwig’s case, he’s almost single-handedly kept alive such genres as the pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, stage adaptations of young people’s literature, plays that can be called farce, star-studded (or not) comedies about theater, movie and show business folk, and the oft-remembered but rarely sighted “well-made play.”
I don’t mean to suggest now that he’s re-staged, produced or mounted new productions of old plays—otherwise known as revivals—no sir. He has written well over a dozen plays that are basically examples of all of these genres, as authored not by George Kaufman, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, or anybody else you can name now tap dancing in show biz heaven, but by himself.
“I’m not a dinosaur,” he said. “I don’t see myself that way, let’s put it that way. I write and create plays that are in the form or genre of plays that I’ve loved, or forms of entertainment that I love. Most of them are comedies, which are, as you know, are serious business.”
Example one, and the latest: the world premiere of “A Fox on the Fairway,” now at the Signature Theater in Shirlington through November 14. It’s a comedy—farcical, no doubt—about golf.
“Specifically, it’s about two American country clubs and some of its members competing for an annual trophy,” Ludwig said. “From there, you can just imagine.”
Now think for a moment, who made a literary sideline of writing wry comedic books and stories about golf, besides American sportswriter Dan Jenkins?
It’s none other than the great comedic British stylist P.G. Wodehouse, the man who gave the world “Jeeves,” the impeccable, perfect literary butler.
“Exactly,” Ludwig said. “I love comedy, and Wodehouse is an example of a certain kind of style of writing comedy. Writing comedy in book form is terrifically hard. So is writing comedy for the stage. To my mind, it’s the most difficult art form in literature because, first and foremost you have to make people laugh—out loud, preferably—chuckle, smile. In the theater, you don’t want silence during a comedy. It’s a kind of homage to Wodehouse, yes, but it’s very American also.
“I loved Wodehouse. I loved his golf stories. I loved Jeeves. I love J.B. Priestley, whose writing has a little more edge. They’re both great stylists.”
So ‘A Fox on the Fairway,’ you can be sure, is going to be funny. “We heard good things during performances for preview audiences,” Ludwig said.
There are other things Ludwig loves—besides his family. He loves old movies, you guess. He loves show tunes and the great composers of the American songbook like George Gershwin and Cole Porter. He loves comedy. He loves classic and popular literature and stories, like those by Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. He loves show biz people, of which clan he is now a certifiable and certified member.
He says what he tries to do with his plays is to look at them in a fresh way, to make them come alive for contemporary audiences. That’s probably true, but there is a greater force at work here. Put simply: it is love.
Ludwig brings a first-love quality to his work, the boyhood crush you never get over, the grateful love for whomever gave you that first kiss that was really stupefying, the first movie you ever saw that made an indelible impression, the love you still feel for all the lyrics you can’t get out of your head like “Summertime,” “Porgy” or any Gershwin and Porter tune, the love you feel for the great clowns and their pratfalls and that moment during a comedy when there are three people hiding in closets and three people coming through the door.
All of this stuff sounds old fashioned—dinosaur-like if you will—except for one thing: it works for him and for us. He doesn’t do revivals, but his own plays are continually being revived and performed on Broadway (“Lend Me a Tenor” most recently) and in just about every regional and local theater in the country and around the world.
Consider that his very first produced play, the aforementioned “Lend Me a Tenor,” is a side-splitting comedy about the world of opera and was produced by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber, a gentleman with a fairly decent show biz track record who once wrote a musical called “Jeeves.” Or consider “Crazy for You”, the 1990s musical that he wrote in the mode of Gershwin’s original musical which won a Tony for him (He also pulled off a similar epic with a production of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”). Consider the stage versions of “Treasure Island” and “Tom Sawyer” and “The Three Musketeers,” geared toward young audiences and the family trade. Consider one of my personal favorites, that of “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” a grand, affectionate comedy about the making of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Warner Brothers Studio in 1930s Hollywood. Consider “Moon over Buffalo,” already revived and an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Beaux’ Stratagem” or “Leading Ladies.”
Now take a look at Ludwig’s website and check out where Ludwig plays are, or have been playing. Why, they are just about everywhere: Aurora, Ohio, Broadway, the Crested Butte Mountain Theater, The Minstrel Players, the Villainous University Theater, the Scarborough Theater in Ontario, Canada, “Moon Over Buffalo” in Moldova, The Three Musketeers, in London, “Crazy for You” in Melbourne.
High-minded critics haven’t always been crazy for Ludwig. But theatergoers have. Those plays live on, in much the same way that the forms, writers and shows that Ludwig loves so much live on in his mind. In a way, he’s returning a favor of happiness found, happiness returned.
“As somebody said: tragedy is easy, comedy is hard,” Ludwig said. Actors like Barry Nelson, Hal Holbrook, Carol Burnett, Joan Collins and the late Dixie Carter have shown that.
Not bad for a guy who’s also a certified lawyer and graduate of Harvard Law School, family man, husband to wife Adrienne (also a lawyer), and father of Olivia and Jack, resident not of Hollywood or New York, but of Northwest Washington. And he just keeps on rolling because, well, the game’s afoot. Oh wait, that’s the title of his next play (subtitled “Holmes for the Holiday”) about William Gillette, the great actor who made a career of playing Sherlock Holmes on stage.