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Gender Splendor

Old-fashioned Leading Ladies -- a surprise hit

On paper, Ken Ludwig's new comedy, Leading Ladies, sounds about as fun as a toothache. The protagonists are two small-time, dead-broke actors who cook up a ludicrous scheme to bilk an old lady out of millions. They go to her little Pennsylvania town dressed up as her long-lost nieces so they can collect a sizable inheritance and, of course, fall in love with two perfectly lovely women. Eventually, the actors-dressed-as-women must reveal themselves as men.

Sounds like a real old-fashioned snoozefest. Men dressed as women is as old as the hat can get, not to mention inheritance-scams-gone-wrong and broke actors. To make matters worse, there's no sex, booze, drugs, angsty irony or anything else to shake up this '50s-style farce into something hip and new. But here's the wacky thing: Old-fashioned though he may be, Ludwig (of Lend Me a Tenorand Moon Over Buffalo fame) knows how to make people laugh. The Alley Theatre's world-premiere production of Ludwig's newest farce is so funny, it will make sophisticated and reasonable men and women of the 21st century cackle till their faces hurt.

When Leo (Brent Barrett) and Jack (Christopher Duva) arrive at Aunt Florence's fancy digs dressed as female Shakespearean characters, the silliness soars. Jack is blond Stephanie, who's not only a very large woman but a deaf-mute. And her method of "lip reading" involves holding her fingers over other people's mouths -- and much slapstick-style goofiness.

Leading Ladies' happy couple: Audrey (Kohl) 
and Stephanie (Duva).
T. Charles Erickson
Leading Ladies' happy couple: Audrey (Kohl) and Stephanie (Duva).

Details

Leading Ladies: Through November 7 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. $19-$52.

Me-sci-ah: Through November 6 at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443. $5.99-$15.

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Leo becomes the dark-haired, plain-faced Maxine, who makes fast friends with pretty Meg (Erin Dilly), the only character related to Aunt Florence. Of course, underneath his girlish hugs, Leo's falling in love with sweet Meg.

And Dilly's surprising Meg is a rare thing: a hysterically funny ingenue. Dilly is a wonderful, limber clown whose reactions involve her whole body. Her arms fly up and her legs go bouncy when she hears good news. That Meg tries to be polite only makes her flailing responses that much funnier.

The charming supporting characters are played with wacky joy by a cast of Broadway veterans directed by Ludwig himself in a big, brassy style. As grouchy Aunt Florence, Jane Connell is hilarious; her Broadway credits go back several decades, and she can bust up the place with a perfectly timed double-take and sling one-liners with dead-to-the-funny-bone accuracy. Lacey Kohl beams as Audrey, a ditsy blond who falls for Jack. And Dan Lauria's easygoing Doc cracks up the house when he walks out wearing his own version of Shakespearean rags, including an enormous codpiece.

Across the board, these actors are having a romping good time, and their joy is infectious. The show may not ponder life's great questions, but it comes as a welcome treat.

Cruise Control

When longtime company member Troy Schulze heads up an Infernal Bridegroom Productions show, the weird-factor goes off the scale. Lately, he's become a master at making theater out of seemingly nontheatrical texts. His recent "adaptations" include Actual Air, a production put together from David Berman's poetry, and Jerry's World, cobbled together from the oddball radio shows of Joe Frank. This season, Schulze uses "found" and "published sources" to stitch together a bitingly funny indictment of the Church of Scientology and its most famous follower, Tom Cruise.

Me-sci-ah is collaged together from video, music, monologues and interviews, and it delivers some disturbingly compelling scenes. The opening features a woman (Jenni Rotter) dressed in a black teddy, discussing some sort of creepy recovered memory -- "personal awareness" is a fundamental aspect of Scientology. From there, we cut to the history of L. Ron Hubbard, the man who started Scientology in 1954 and apparently believed that "the best way to make a million dollars" is to start a religion.

In an interview, Hubbard's son (Schulze) tells us that Hubbard Sr. was a dangerous fraud who accidentally created his new "religion" when his followers misread the 1950 best-seller Dianetics, a book Hubbard Jr. says was intended as fiction. The young Hubbard smokes and shines a thin-lipped Machiavellian grin at us -- a familiar, if effective, gesture from Schulze. He also tells us that he witnessed his father trying to perform an abortion on his mother and that he himself is the result of an abortion gone wrong.

After moving swiftly to the present, when Cruise becomes part of the story, we sit in on a mesmerizing interview with him. In Top Gun white, Schulze plays an empty-headed narcissist who took to Scientology because he believes it makes him strong.

Lasting only an hour, the show is riveting for all its dark undercurrent of violence and its utterly creepy statement about our collective ability to be bamboozled by any sort of Tom-foolery put out for public consumption -- a message that seem especially dark given our current political climate.

 
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