Leading Ladies from Texas Repertory Theatre: Strong Performances Enliven a Pedestrian Farce

The setup:

In the farce Leading Ladies, two Shakespearean actors down on their luck seek to impersonate the heirs to an estate, and follow through even when they discover that the heirs were actually heiresses.

The execution:

This comedy employs the familiar theatrical staple of men in drag, and strong acting by seasoned professionals goes a long way toward making this vehicle work. Texas Rep's artistic director, Steve Fenley, portrays Shakespearean actor Leo, and also Maxine, but Fenley is no Charles Busch, nor does he aspire to be -- there is no pretense of persuasive gender impersonation, as in Some Like It Hot. Jeffrey S. Lane plays Jack, Leo's stalwart acting sidekick, and also Stephanie, and does so brilliantly. Some men in drag can look beautiful, but trust me, that is not the case here.

Realism is not required in farce, but plausible motivations and situations can still provide an anchor for comedy. Playwright Ken Ludwig has here chosen the route of broad physical humor and simple misunderstandings -- sometimes repeated -- and hasn't bothered to spike the goings-on with wit. Fenley carries the show on his talented shoulders, but it's a bit like Atlas holding the world -- a heavy burden. He is helped enormously by a strong supporting cast: the very attractive Lauren Dolk is a sparkling Audrey -- her entrance on roller skates is hilarious -- and Mischa Hutchins portrays Meg, caregiver for the wealthy, dying Florence, with beauty and warmth.

Don Hampton plays the family doctor with humor and distinction, and David Walker (as the script requires) plays the avaricious curate Duncan without humor or charm; I'm certain he can provide both, in a different play. Kyle Cameron is excellent in two minor roles. I've saved the best for last, as Marcy Bannor plays the dying Florence with enough zest and pizzazz to raise the Titanic, and she lights up the stage on her too infrequent entrances. Her performance is a treasure.

The laughs are in the reactions of the characters rather than in repartee, and the work is directed by Rachel Mattox to showcase this approach. She keeps the pace brisk, and there is a brief dance in Act Two which is captivating. The wigs worn by Fenley and Lane sometimes seem to wear them, and the costumes by Macy Perrone are generally appropriate and amusing, though I gawked at Meg's figured dress with the purple fringe; this may have been Perrone's intention. The versatile set by Trey Otis provides two stories, two curving staircases and french doors to an outside garden, and is handsome in design, though some coloration seems motel-ish. Eric Marsh did the lighting, which works well.

Playwright Ken Ludwig has more awards than you can shake a stick at, and Leading Ladies has been compared favorably to his Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, but all the lipstick worn by Leo and Jack can't disguise the fact this vehicle, which played to acclaim at the Alley Theatre in 2004, was shopworn before its premiere, and all the theatrical grace of Fenley can't quite hide its cumbersome construction. It is entertaining, yes, but so is watching bears dance.

The verdict:

A pedestrian farce is enlivened by strong performances by the principals and an excellent supporting cast, who find voluminous laughs in well-worn material.

Leading Ladies continues through September 16 at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd. For information or ticketing, call 281-583-7573 or visit the company Web site.

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Jim Tommaney