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Arts and Entertainment

Gender Bending 1950s Farce 'Leading Ladies' Plays at International City Theatre

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Ken Ludwig's easygoing, gender bending farce Leading Ladies is playing at International City Theatre in Long Beach. Set in 1958, Ludwig's plot follows Leo Clark and Jack Gable, two struggling British actors turned cross-dressing con men as they scheme to steal money from an unwitting family in York, Pennsylvania. Their plans slowly unravel, fall apart, and turn unexecutable as they fall madly in love with two of the women they are trying to scam.

The extremely wholesome, Middle America sort of undertone in Ludwig's work sent us into the theatre full of this-is-gonna-suck-pessimism; but the cast's perfectly executed performances, high-quality staging, and flawless direction in a cushy and clean venue (yeah, believe it or not, cushy and clean is a rarity in Los Angeles) quickly won us over. This production of Leading Ladies most definitely proved itself as an enjoyable night of theatre.

The cast of Leading Ladies is lead by David Engel (as Leo) and John J. Joseph (as Jack). They are first introduced to the audience at a very blue-collar Moose Lodge fraternal organization where they are slated to give a performance. Leo and Jack do a mash-up of Shakespeare's best scenes that is fun enough that you almost wish it would just go on indefinitely plowing through the master playwright's works. It does not, of course, and Leading Ladies promptly jumps head first into the slapsticky farcical qualities that drive the production.

As Jack, Joseph is robust, humorously-expressive and spirited. Engel infuses Leo with a complex mixture of eager zealousness and understated aplomb that is ideal for the part. The solid Leading Ladies supporting cast—Jamison Lingle, Daniel Lench, Lyndsi LaRose, Corey Craig, Don Oscar Smith, and Katherine McKalip—execute their roles without fault and with great comedic timing. LaRose is particularly funny as well-meaning idiot savant, Audrey.

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If there is a single criticism to be found in the whole show it is that Ludwig's script is extremely formulaic, as though he has studied all of the classic plays in existence, converted them into a single equation, and then simply substituted names and places to create a play that works, but lacks true genius. That said, director Richard Israel beautifully Ludwig's shortcomings and crafts a production that is impossible not to like. His direction is tight, neat, and satisfying. While the plot of Leading Ladies requires that the audience really buy into a highly contrived and unlikely situation, Israel makes it feel easy and natural to do so. The costuming and set design staging elements of Leading Ladies are broadly tasteful as though no expense was spared. As much as we love our many Los Angeles little blackbox-style theatres, it is admittedly nice to catch a production such as this that has invested in all of the nice, detailed bells and whistles of a full theatrical staging.

Leading Ladies is playing at International City Theatre through July 1. Tickets, available online or via phone at 562-436-4610, are $39 to $44.