Smile Politely

A cookie full of arsenic

In the great 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success, one character says to another, “You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” The meaning of that, even without context, should be abundantly clear. This quote occurred to me early and often during the opening night performance of Ken Ludwig’s cross-dressing farce Leading Ladies at Parkland College, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.

If you’re familiar with Ludwig’s other plays, you will not be surprised to hear that Leading Ladies has a lot of comic entrances and exits, a lot of very funny punchlines, and a breakneck pace. In the play, two down-on-their-luck Shakespearean actors make a bold play for a rich, dying woman’s fortune by pretending to be her long lost nieces. Complications arise (as you might imagine) when they arrive at the old lady’s home and become entangled in romantic relationships with the woman’s other (and not at all long lost) niece and a local girl whom they meet by chance on the train.

It all sounds humorous enough in the abstract. A little lame even. Safe, silly fun for Grandma and Grandpa and maybe even the grandkids on a weekday night. “They’re guys, right? But they’re wearing dresses! So it’s funny!” Wink wink, nudge nudge. And if that’s all that Leading Ladies had turned out to be, there’d be nothing wrong with it. After all, Shakespeare himself got quite a bit of mileage out of mistaken identities and putting blokes in dresses.

Thankfully, this show is more than it seems. It is indeed very funny, and yes, the sight of the protagonists in drag elicits exactly the guffaws you would imagine. And the constant racing about in heels and quick-changing is both impressive (from a physical standpoint) and a genuine hoot to watch. What might surprise you, however, given the show’s Some Like It Hot-era trappings, is that the play has a serious mean streak. The humor, more often than not, is pitch-black and aims right for the soft parts. 

And please don’t misunderstand: I mean that as a true compliment. If this play had been what I expected (and no, I didn’t read it beforehand, which is rare for me), I don’t know if I could have stomached it. Thankfully, even the most lovable characters on hand exhibit some real quirk and even a little kink.

As Leo Clark and Jack Gable (get it?), Warren Garver and Eric Schacht have fantastic chemistry. And that’s incredibly important. While yes, there are opposite-sex love interests to consider, the relationship between these two fellas portraying partners is crucial to the stakes of the play. Luckily, Garver and Schacht deliver. My earlier mention of Some Like It Hot is apt, for this pairing has echoes of the exasperated wit displayed by Lemmon and Curtis. This was my first time seeing Garver on stage, but he anchors the show dependably, creating in Leo someone as charming as he is smarmy. Leo is certainly not overburdened with scruples, but the audience can’t seem to hold that against him as he spins his crackpot scheme. And in his assumed identity of the potential heiress “Maxine,” Garver is a commanding presence, to be sure. (Note to Mr. Garver: If you ever get the chance to play Dr. Frankenfurter in Rocky Horror, jump at it.)

As the more submissive Jack, Eric Schacht has the plum role of the put-upon sidekick, and he aces it, managing the difficult feat of being sly and sympathetic at the same time. I had previously enjoyed Schacht as a minister on the make in Joi Hoffsommer’s production of Pride and Prejudice, but that performance—good as it was—did not prepare me for his deft comic timing and physicality. Even when he is unable to speak (for reasons pertaining to plot), his mannerisms evoke as much laughter as any of the scripted lines. As for Schacht’s transformation to “Stephanie,” I will say that he reminded me of a little of Amy Madigan and leave it at that. (Not a compliment, per se. Just an observation. She’s a damn fine actress and a handsome woman.)

I should, at this point, give a shout-out to Malia Andrus’s outstanding costuming. From roller-skating waitress uniforms to body-hugging 50’s fashions to Cleopatra drag, she had her work cut out for her, and she crushed it.  Kudos on another great-looking show that is no doubt more period authentic than the audience will ever know. Nice work to you costume builders and quick-changers, too.

As pertains to the rest of the cast, I must say that those I had seen before (like David Heckman as the Reverend Duncan) have never been better, and those I had not seen before are well worth seeing again. I must give special notice to the performances of Michaela Kruse (as the legitimate heir Meg) and Jamie Simmering (as waitress/student Audrey). Each of these ladies portrays a common 50’s era stock character without ever seeming like one. In Kruse’s case, Meg is the unhappily engaged gal who dreams of being an actress. We’ve seen this before, naturally, but Kruse is so winning that you love her anyway. And as the motormouthed Audrey, Simmering performs feats of physical and vocal comedy that threaten to steal the show. (I won’t spoil it, but she ad-libbed a little something opening night that was both in character and hilarious.)

The zingers fly fast and furious, and the pace is, as expected, mostly cranked up to eleven. That said, there are a few moments in Act Two that begin to drag a bit (no pun intended). If you find yourself feeling like you’re trapped in an old sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, fear not: there is another nasty put-down around the corner. You will occasionally be surprised by just how saucy these old-timey scenarios can be.

This leads me to the only troubling moment I found in the play, in which one character is set up to seduce another under false pretenses and, of course, things go awry. A letter is misdelivered, intentions are misunderstood, and the long and short of it is that we see one character attempting to force himself sexually on another. This was not an uncommon scene in films and plays of times gone by, and often the situation was played for “laughs.” In this instance, however, and certainly in this day and age, it’s awfully hard to spin potential rape into something humorous. I will give credit to director Sandra Zielinski and her actors for staging a pretty tasteless moment in as absurd and non-threatening a way as possible. (You’ll know the moment when you see it. It’s possible you might even find it funny. Don’t be too hard on yourself.)

That moment aside and on the whole, Leading Ladies is a fast, frenetic night of comedy that will have the majority of its audience in stitches from lights up to final curtain (and beyond). The dialogue is clever, the action is choreographed within an inch of its life, and the cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience. And that’s saying something.

Leading Ladies continues this Thursday through Sunday at Parkland College Theatre. Visit the Parkland website for more details about tickets.

Photos by Scott Wells/EddieScott Photo.

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