BWW Review: North Coast Rep Outfoxes the Fairway
It didn't take long for the wry, masterful humor of internationally acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig (http://www.kenludwig.com) to take hold of the audience for his uproarious comedy, The Fox on the Fairway, North Coast Rep's 34th season opening night offering.
In this witty take on the clichés of golf, Ludwig quickly and easily demonstrates his comic deftness in a screwball comedy set in the world of a game he considers to be intrinsically funny and silly.
Fox is a brilliant choice by NCR General Director David Ellenstein to bring to their stage the mastery of the Tony Award nominated Ludwig, whose list of major theater awards is too lengthy to quote here. His body of work - some 22 plays and musicals - is a testament to his dramatic acumen. How many playwrights have degrees from Harvard and have studied music with Leonard Bernstein?
Thus the audience was treated to the work of a playwright who could easily adopt "Farce" as his middle name. And, as it happens, he also knows his opera and his playwriting ancestors; in fact, one of this play's most improbable but engaging twists is a nod to Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro, and thus to Mozart's setting of the play.
Fox features comic shenanigans, sexual innuendo and jealousy and rivalry against the background of a snooty private country club, with a cast of quirky characters played by some familiar NCR players and including one fabulous debut. But this unique take is not just about pratfalls and pranks. Ludwig has said that he keeps Shakespeare in mind when he sits down to write, and considers Twelfth Night just as compelling as Otello.
Clearly director Matthew Wiener, a known quantity at NCR for his admirable work in such productions as Unnecessary Farce and another brilliant Ludwig work, Lend Me a Tenor, has approached Fox not only with tongue-in-cheek aplomb and as lightweight fluff, but also as highly stylized, sophisticated Shakespearean comedy. Wiener treats the characters as three dimensional mortals who are tackling issues that are more than just comical, thus leaving the audience with a sense of the touching as well as of the amusing.
As Quail Valley Country club president Bingham, Kevin Bailey nailed his character with braggadocio worthy of a certain presidential candidate, while still keeping Bingham's vulnerable side. Last seen at NCR as the conflicted detective in the tongue-in-cheek noir, Gunmetal Blues (/bwwmusic/article/BWW-Review-North-Coast-Rep-Spoofs-Smoking-Guns-Smoking-Hot-Blondes-20150119), Bailey portrayed the love-starved, henpecked husband with an appealingly vulnerable quality that drew both the audience's sympathy and empathy.
Brian Salmon, who counts Fox as his 10th show with NCR, nimbly displayed his background in such roles as Henry Higginson in My Fair Lady with his portrayal of the arrogant Dickie, Bingham's bête noire. Here Ludwig shows his brilliance at drawing characters in the stark contrasts between Dickie and Bingham. As Dickie, Salmon shows none of Bingham's helplessness, and his "world owes me a living" mentality is infuriating. (Sound familiar?) He adds an edge of sneer to every phrase, successfully depicting the character we love to hate - until his barriers finally break down in a clever twist in Act 2.
Kyle Sorrell as the love-struck Justin, Bingham's assistant, endeared himself from the very beginning with his ingenuousness and seeming willingness to catapult toward the edge and throw himself off. There was no end to poor Justin's lack of luck in matters of love, profession, and sheer bodily punishment. Every physical move and ingenuous pout made him more likeable, even in the face of the far-fetched requirements of his role.
It's always a pleasure to see Jacquelyn Ritz perform. After her droll characterizations in Chapter Two, Fallen Angels, and Man with a Load of Mischief at NCR, her appearance as the attractive, sexually loose Pamela in Fox was much anticipated. She did not disappoint. Her every move steamed up the stage with unapologetic sexual implications, and her panoplies of facial expressions demonstrated her considerable comic gifts.
Newcomer Ashley Stults has played club house waitress Louise in other productions of The Fox on the Fairway. And it showed. She was practically bouncing off the walls with her portrayal of the good-natured, scatterbrained but bookish young beauty. Her marvelous physicality matched her seemingly artless outlook on life. Yet she managed to bring a surprising sweetness and sophistication to her role. Stults is one to watch.
Roxane Carrasco (Muriel), who has appeared at NCR in Dames at Sea and also on Broadway in the pivotal role of Velma in Chicago, played Bingham's domineering wife with a spectacular range of physicality and emotion. Both rough-edged and needy, Carrasco plied the contrasts and conflicts within her character for every drop of comedic potential.
Uproarious doesn't begin to describe the antics in The Fox on the Fairway. Ludwig transforms farce into high art, and the expert NCR ensemble milks its zany brilliance to the max. As Ellenstein remarked in his show prelude, the company was starting the season with dessert. For those of us who think life is short enough to start that way, as well as those with a penchant for sweet, frothy concoctions, Fox provides a winning recipe for early autumn indulgence. A high energy production with a cast to match.
A Fox on the Fairway has been extended through Oct. 11 (http://www.northcoastrep.org/season/fox.html).
Photo credits: Aaron Rumley