IF YOU GO
What: Comedic farce about two actors who dress as women to scam a fortune
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 15
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.org
Something else: The downtown parking garage fills up quickly during season. Arrive early or use the garage near Cambier Park.
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
NAPLES — The Naples Players know their audience. Sometimes, you just want a laugh. Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies" promises boys in dresses, girls on roller skates, stray letters, galloping grannies and more. Opening night saw titters and giggles aplenty from a pre-Thanksgiving crowd.
Ken Ludwig writes sturdy farces - lots of goofy plots, mistaken identities, characters yelling and loads of slamming doors. Four of his works land in theaters across Southwest Florida this year: "Lend Me A Tenor" at Florida Rep, "Moon Over Buffalo" at Cultural Park, "Leading Ladies" and "The Fox on the Fairway" in the Off-Broadway Palm.
Yet, for all that the show satisfies the senior audiences that fill Sugden Community Theatre seeking mild diversion, it remains a far cry from the best efforts of the Naples Players. Uninspired, non-existent direction from John McKerrow dooms the show from start to finish. "Leading Ladies" crawls at a snail's pace from one static, stagnant scene to the next. Written as a farce, the actors often do little more than walk on stage, lock into position, say their lines and leave.
Where - and how - did a show about cross-dressing con men trying to steal an old lady's millions go so badly wrong?
On the surface, "Leading Ladies" looks to have a lot going for it. Dot Auchmoody's costume design - especially a criminally hilarious Cleopatra getup for Armstrong and a fairy-queen Titania costume for Goetz - deserves a hand. Ditto for Matt Flynn's gorgeous, soaring, powder-blue Pennsylvania mansion. Too-busy banister rail notwithstanding, I want to live in that house. You will too.
Robert Armstrong (Leo Clark) and Brad Goetz (Jack Gable) share passable chemistry as the penniless, struggling actors who just got booed out of a Moose Lodge. Armstrong in particular lives up to the frantic, hurry-scurry-worry atmosphere of farce; Goetz carries many of the scenes with wonderfully dazed facial expressions and an air of silliness.
Several Naples Players newcomers give solid debut performances. Kat Ebaugh sparkles as a daffy roller-skating carhop, while Ellice McCoy Ullrich brings charm to heiress Meg. Likewise, Kris Knudson takes heart and (correctly) overplays his minor role as the local doctor's son. I loved that Knudson dares to act in the background of scenes - with faces, gestures and movements; it adds inestimable depth to the gasping action on stage.
Farces require speed, action and quickness. "Leading Ladies" has none. The show clocks in at an endless two hours - and feels like more. McKerrow, who brought life to stunning dramas like "Mauritius" and "Rabbit Hole," as well as his own Shakespeare in Paradise shows, seems unwilling or unable to explore the possibilities inherent in these "Leading Ladies."
The first half-hour features Armstrong and Goetz in a should-be comical "Scenes from Shakespeare" performance. Lacking any other actors, the two down-at-heel "stars" simply recite lines from various plays while banging wooden swords. It could be funny. It should be funny. Yet, McKerrow doesn't push them to do dramatic impressions, outrageous voices or outlandish swordplay. Line. Sword stroke. Line. The best moment in the scene comes from a heckler, Knudson, planted in the audience, who yells insults.
Likewise, Ebaugh gets at least two scenes on roller skates. Her effervescent personality fits the ditzy Audrey, who spits out definitions at the drop of a hat. But the show squanders the opportunity of having a cute girl on wheels by making it far too obvious the actress can barely keep her balance. A few lessons and interesting blocking might have generated pace and laughs - even if they ended with a crash onto the furniture. Even chase scenes criminally neglect at least one lap around the sofa.
One of the show's best moments, where Charles Brown's hapless Doctor Myers seduces Goetz's Stephanie, goes directly for puerile humor instead of at least trying for smarter, more subtle laughs. Imagine a vapid blonde trying to put off a suitor with her wiles and some creative moves on the couch. Instead, McKerrow flops poor Goetz on his back on a huge divan and parks Brown between his legs. Funny? Maybe. Creative? No.
Missed opportunities riddle the show like Swiss cheese. Janet Vogel's dying matriarch, Florence, should be a scene-stealing terror; the character comes across as a generic grandmother; she needs a brash mouth and a floor-pounding cane. Les Prebble's obnoxious minister needed a full dose of sassy fussiness and eye-rolling attitude; it feels like someone asked him to dial down to a nameless, faceless man in a dog collar.
The show's best moments - by far - feature the boys playing girls. Armstrong and Goetz throw themselves into these scenes with abandon, becoming great, clomping creatures "Max" and "Stephanie." Just the sight of the Cleopatra wig brings a few screams. Goetz's character is supposed to be deaf and dumb - at least for a few minutes - so characters "lip read" by holding "Stephanie's" hand to their lips and yelling at him. The real Jack also has a crush on Ebaugh's Audrey, so "Stephanie" is forever asking for a hug just to cop a feel. It winds up being one of the night's better running jokes.
Even then, I wish McKerrow had gone beyond allowing the costumes and the actors' natural ability to carry the scenes. No funny poses, no girls waving flowers about, no odd mishaps with furniture or jiggling brassieres? This production of "Leading Ladies" feels mechanical, underwhelming and stultifying.
"Leading Ladies" will get laughs from the mostly senior audiences that make up a large portion of the Naples Players patron base, true, but the show could have - and should have - been far better. Look for Robert Armstrong and Brad Goetz as a pair of silly actors in funny dresses, as well as Kat Ebaugh as a ditzy roller girl.
Boys in dresses are always funny. Email me, email@example.com. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.