If it weren’t for comic acting talents of the Heights Players, the cross-dressing farce that is “Leading Ladies” would have been a real dog.
Indeed, Ken Ludwig’s comedy about two Shakespearean actors who dress as women to gain money and love was already tired when it bowed in 2004 — a “Mrs. Doubtfire” retread that leaves little suspense to the action itself.
That left the job of keeping the audience engaged to the actors — who had good direction from Ed Healy — when the show opened on Friday.
After about 10 minutes of chuckling one-liners, the story truly kicks off on a train ride with the actors Leo Clark (Jere Williams) and Jack Gable (Steve Velardi), who learn about a dying woman’s effort to re-connect with her long lost granddaughters, who will share $3 million when she dies.
To Clark and Gable’s advantage, they’re professional actors (the reference to Clark Gable is lost in the story, but is probably some comment on the play’s recurring theme of actors and their apparent quest to be fake). But alas, they must gather their old costumes from former shows and dress up to prove they are two of the granddaughters — one of whom is deaf and dumb — from the sticks.
Still, the obvious plot twists and “antics” that ensue are overshadowed by great acting — Williams and Velardi are quick, sharp with their timing and pitch, and mesh to create a nearly seamless machine of ongoing crack-ups.
Most of the action takes place in the home of dying Florence (played by the sassy and youthful Sheila MacDougall) who is convinced she isn’t ill. She’s being taken care of by Doc (the funny uncle you sometimes wish never came to dinner, played by Michael Janove) her sweet granddaughter Meg Snider (a debut for Sarah Garza) and her older, straight-laced fiancé, the Rev. Duncan Woolery (Raymond Wagner), who argue throughout over Snider’s love of actors and theater.
Naturally, boring old Rev. Duncan is the only character who (rightly) suspects Clark and Gable when they arrive, dressed in horrendously funny outfits depicting Cleopatra and a fairy. Naturally, the cross-dressing Clark falls in love with Snider, while Gable goes gaga over Snider’s dim-witted friend Audrey (Aubrey Antonsen). This forces the men to move in and out of drag in a predictable series of near-misses.
However tired the plot, the laughs keep coming in surprisingly quick succession. The Heights Players weren’t necessarily born for their roles, but they’re great at stand-up comedy.
Garza especially shined in her role as the unassuming third granddaughter. She lived through Meg with elegance and poise, and provided many of the laughs (and the least opening-day flubs) that brought this cast together.
Indeed, if this show is worth seeing at all, it’s because of Healy and his troupe, not because of anything writer Ludwig brought to the table.
“Leading Ladies” at the Heights Players [26 Willow Pl. between Joralemon and State streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 237-2752], runs through March 21. For info, visit www.heightsplayers.org.