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You’ve got to at least admire Ken Ludwig for doggedly attempting to revitalize the classic farce genre. His early efforts, Lend Me A Tenor and the musical Crazy for You, were enjoyable effervescent comedies that bubbled and fizzed like a ton of Alka-Seltzers plop, plopped into a fifty-gallon tub of water.
Lately, however, it seems as though Ludwig’s fizz, fizz has gone flat. All that’s left is the plop, plop.
Ludwig, who lives in Washington but has attained most of his success on Broadway where the theatrical standards are much lower, is currently represented here by two productions: Twentieth Century, an undernourished update of the frothy Hecht/MacArthur classic at Signature and Shakespeare in Hollywood, a far more thematically ambitious undertaking that wedges elements of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a real-life setting. The comedy features a clunky narrative structure that aspires to stir a little dramatic gravity into the farcical stew. Unfortunately, gravity is the last thing you need in a comedy such as this. What you need is bounce that’s lighter than air.
Set in 1934 Hollywood and framed around the making of Max Reinhardt’s one and only American film — A Midsummer Night’s Dream — the story finds King Oberon and his playful sidekick Puck magically transported into the Hollywood scene. It’s a paper-perfect merging of two fantasy worlds, and the mythic characters take to Tinseltown like fairies in an enchanted forest. In one twenty-four hour period — and with the petal-juice of a flower that, as it does in Shakespeare’s play, serves as an instant love potion — Oberon and Puck create havoc in the form of wildly mismatched romances. Things get frenetic for a while, then they get solved. Case closed. Curtain down.
Shakespeare in Hollywood isn’t as funny as it could have been — settling in at about twenty rungs below the worst of Neil Simon’s comedies. Part of the fault lies with Kyle Donnelly, who directs with the grace of a nearsighted lumberjack. The comic situations are cluttered and messy, with no discernable focus. The actors have been instructed to play as broadly and blusteringly as possible, and some, like Everett Quinton, who must be commended on his ability to mug to the rafters without shame, are mesmerizingly dreadful. Quinton, who evokes memories of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, incorporates no finesse into the character of Will Hayes, the notorious Hollywood censor. He might as well be acting on a different planet — like, say, Pluto. Ditto for the normally wonderful Ellen Karas, who is turned into a shrill, unamusing harpy as Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons.
There are, however, a sprinkling of fine performances on hand that nearly salvage the wreckage. Robert Prosky is a wise and wonderful Reinhardt, Rick Foucheux is pitch-perfect as studio mogul Jack Warner, and Alice Ripley mines some well-earned laughs as Jean Hagen type. Most impressive, however, are Emily Donahoe’s charming, energetic Puck and Casey Biggs’s commanding and poignant Oberon. Though saddled with some awkward groaners, Biggs rises to the occasion and gives Shakespeare in Hollywood an enormous booster-shot of majesty. He is its one true king.