Thursday's audience certainly enjoyed the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's Leading Ladies, judging by their loud snorts and uninhibited guffaws. Ken Ludwig provides plenty of fodder for laughter, as do director Tom Vaccaro and his cast, who hit the comedy's high notes pitch-perfectly. As for me, I didn't just giggle but laughed heartily right along with the rest of the crowd at least a dozen times.
That's not to say, though, that I laughed consistently throughout the performance. Ludwig takes a long time to set up Leading Ladies' premise of two male Shakespearean actors attempting to fool a wealthy, dying widow into believing they're her long-lost nieces. The play starts with a scene involving the ingénue Meg (Sarah Ade Wallace) and her uncomfortably too-old-for-her fiancé Duncan (Andy Davis), a compassionless, mistrusting, and judgmental reverend. They're running late for a performance of Scenes from Shakespeare at the local Moose Lodge, which features the aforementioned actors Leo and Jack (Jonathan Grafft and Nathan Johnson).
We're next whisked away to Leo's and Jack's performance, where we find out that they're such bad actors that their entire audience would rather take to the buffet across the street than endure another moment of poor deliveries and even poorer sword-fighting skills. Then we're on a train, where Leo and Jack lament their lack of funds and Leo discovers an article about a wealthy woman - Jackie Skiles' ridiculously hilarious, crotchety old bat Florence - looking for her missing heirs. The actors subsequently plot to convince Florence that they're her nephews, only to find out from Mallory Park's assertive but airheaded Audrey, a fellow train passenger, that Florence is actually looking for nieces.
This is when we finally get to the good stuff. After those three scenes that felt long and dull and filled with extraneous exposition, Leo and Jack appear as Maxine and Stephanie, dressed in costumes pulled from their Shakespeare performances. (Just the sight of Grafft dressed as a sexy Cleopatra, and Johnson in a getup that looks like a children's-Halloween-costume version of Titania the Fairy Queen, is worth the show's ticket price.) Grafft then pulls off a passable attempt at employing the mannerisms of a lady while using his falsetto, while Johnson, playing deaf and dumb, seems more awkward in drag to great comedic effect. Theirs is a comedy duo with Grafft as the straight man - er, woman - and Johnson as the funny one (which is never more apparent than when he performs Pee Wee Herman's "Tequila" dance later in the play). The rest of the story involves these two men - dressed in smart, matronly, manhood-hiding choices by costumers Suzanne DeRue and Jeff Blackwell - attempting to win Florence over while also befriending and, in an expected cliché, falling in love with women while in drag: Leo with Meg, and Jack with Audrey.
There are hearty laughs involving plenty of sexual situations and innuendo, including everything said by the smart-mouthed Doc (Stan Weimer) who mistakenly, and repeatedly, pronounces Florence dead. ("She had no pulse. Then she got better.") Grafft also has some great moments as his Maxine demonstrates a quick wit, such as when Doc says that his daughter, Audrey, will marry Josh Wielenga's Butch over his dead body, and Maxine replies, "That would be an odd ceremony." This is also the funniest I've seen Skiles on the Richmond Hill stage, with her gravely-voiced, angst-ridden proclamations barked at the other characters.
However, there are also more boring sections, as well as annoying scripting, such as the moment in which Audrey, asked to give a letter to Duncan to trick him into seducing Stephanie/Jack, spills on it and says something along the lines of "Oh, no! I've spilled something on the letter and smudged the writing and can't see the name on it." (Really, Mr. Ludwig?) The evening, which already feels a bit long despite the occasional raucous laughter, then ends with a fast-paced recreation of the play's scenes in reverse order, as the actors rush around and freeze in tableaux of the production's most memorable points - which are, apparently, all of them. While sometimes funnier than the play itself, I also found this irritating. We just saw this, so why do we need to see it all again? (It also left the crowd clapping for longer than was comfortable, as there was uncertainty whether this was the curtain call.)
In the end, I left Richmond Hill's Leading Ladies torn as to whether or not I liked it. While I laughed harder than I usually do during plays, and there were some great performances, I can't deny that I was also bored during too many parts of Ludwig's script, and the play feels like it runs too long.
Leading Ladies runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through August 24, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)244-9944 or visiting RHPlayers.com.