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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Fox on the Fairway — Act II Playhouse

fox on fairway --interiorGolf is a religion to the characters in Ken Ludwig’s amusing flapdoodle of a farce, “The Fox on the Fairway.”

Both acts of the clockwork-structured comedy, filled, as all Ludwig pieces are, with an avalanche of easily avoidable but uncontrollably colliding misunderstandings, misapprehensions, and missed opportunities, begin with characters reciting fervent paeans to golf.

Both acts proceed to show the rivalry between neighboring suburban country clubs waged as if it’s on par with Gettysburg or Normandy Beach. As gentleman’s bets, suspicions, player challenges, and trash talk are exchanged among denizens of the Quail Valley Country Club and Crouching Squirrel Golf and Racquet Club, milestone domestic events occur that should take precedence over the optimum use of a mashie or niblick. But don’t. Golf, after all, rules all “Fox on the Fairway” lives. Golf, Ludwig sarcastically notes, takes priority. No marriage, divorce, infidelity, health issue, or job situation could ever be as important as achieving a true, straight drive to the green from each tee.

While “Fox” is hardly as rollicking or sophisticated as Ludwig’s “Tenor” plays or “Baskerville,” which arrives soon via the Philadelphia Theatre Company, it keeps you thoroughly entertained and laughing. Ludwig doesn’t aim for outsized characterizations as much as he keenly observes suburban morals and mores. Jokes in “Fox on the Fairway” are as likely to be about real estate value, antiques, Country Club decorum, marriage, and social status as they are about bogeys and graded putts. Costumer Jillian Keys adds some witty touches of her own by dressing the Quail Valley, CEO, Henry Bingham, in a blue blazer and plaid pants that look as if they were inspired by a WASP casual wear catalogue from 1958 and giving his Crouching Squirrel counterpart, Dickie, sweaters so loud and ugly they’d make Bill Cosby barf. “Fox” may stay on a superficial, middle-of-the-road level, but Ludwig’s play, as seen at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, is consistently funny and always diverting. And that’s plenty enough.

William Roudebush makes an auspicious return to the Philadelphia area, following a sojourn in Florida, with a bright production and takes on sparkle when Karen Peakes, Will Dennis, and Peter Bisgaier dominate the stage. Peakes, in particular, provides an edge that moves “Fox” from amiable to sharp when her character, Quail Valley board member, Pam, is the main focus. Maybe it’s because Pam, has a more assured, more pragmatic, less frantic point of view from the others we see. In fact, anything but sipping wine, considering sex, and winning critical golf tournaments mean little or nothing to her. Or maybe it’s because Pam tends to be the one, because of her simple outlook, who snaps sense into confused situations. Either way, Peakes has a polish, or hauteur, the others, though of the same class, do not.

Special praise of Peakes in no way lessens the contributions of her castmates, the mentioned Dennis and Bisgaier and Joe Guzmán, Gerre Garrett, and Naomi Weiss. Roudebush has molded an ensemble that is as efficient in maintaining pace as it proficient in keeping the laughs rolling. It’s especially admirable the way the men — Dennis, Bisgaier, and Guzmán — can allow their characters some shtick while remaining believable and natural as people walking the Earth and, particularly, its country clubs. Dennis is a fine physical comedian who uses both agility and some talent for pratfalls to give the play’s hero, Justin, a touch of awkwardness that offsets his flawless performance on a golf course. One of Ludwig’s early jokes comes when a seemingly uncoordinated Justin tells Bingham his average score is a pathetic 138 while his girlfriend, Louise, is trying to get Bingham to list Justin as Quall Valley’s representative in the big tournament. Justin rarely shoots in the 70s, Louise says. “I thought you told me you hit 138,” Bingham challenges. “I thought you were talking about both rounds,” Justin says.

Bingham, whose first name, Henry, recalls the opera impresario, Henry Saunders, from Ludwig’s “Tenor” plays, is, like Saunders, a bit of a blowhard who likes to order people about and gets frantic over little things he thinks might lower the standards of Quail Valley or rankle its board members. He is under the gun because his club has lost to Crouching Squirrel for five consecutive years, and one more disappointment will insure his humiliating exit. Guzmán’s Dickie doesn’t make matters easier because he has stolen the golfer Bingham recruited to skew the tournament in Quail Valley’s favor. Faced with the loss of that player, who picture he has just hung is his club’s tap room, Bingham is desperate to find a replacement who can compete at the same level. He is especially keen to win after he realizes Dickie has suckered him into a high-stakes bet that might cost his unwitting wife, the bound-to-be-unsympathetic Muriel, the rare antique shop she’s built from entrepreneurial scratch.

Bingham’s need to trounce Dickie and Crouching Squirrel leads him to Justin, who he has hired just that day as his office assistant and factotum to tend to myriad matters around the club. Ludwig, recognizing a good formula once he’s benefited from it, uses Justin the same way he used the even meeker Max in “Lend Me a Tenor>” He’s the put-upon flunky who comes to the rescue. He’s the unassuming, unambitious clerk who has a skill or talent that, once exposed, could lead to greatness.

Not taking Louise’s word, Bingham tests Justin. He asks him to make a precise indoor putt that would needs to cross two doorways and account for different textures of carpeting to hit the specific leg of a chair in another room.

Of course, Justin makes the shot nonchalantly, as if all he had to do was get the tiny golf ball through a basketball hoop. Bingham is amazed. Entering Justin in the tournament would break all kinds of rules, but Dickie has not exactly been kosher in his scheming so, as you would expect in such situations, rules be damned.

The tournament and the wager riding on it, which turns out to mean so much more to the wily Dickie than Bingham even suspected, form the hub which “The Fox on the Fairway’s” plot spokes emanate.

Ludwig puts a lot of gambits in play. Now that Justin has a job, he can afford to ask Louise to marry him. Matters, some involving Justin’s grandmother’s ring, place the engagement in constant peril. Pam, the board member, was once married to Dickie but also had a prom night tumble with Bingham, for whom she’s always had a flame. Bingham is married to a no-nonsense woman who wouldn’t approve of anything going on, but supports Quail Valley and wants it to win the tournament. Especially when she hears about how her shop, and the land on which it sits, are involved. Justin, who is usually oblivious to all that goes on around him, reacts to emotional situations, such as the possible alienation of Louise, by doing everything haphazardly and without thinking. He physicalizes his angst by lashing out at everything in his wake and concentrating on nothing. Including that usually flawless golf game. Louise, raised in foster homes and pleased with her niche at Quail Valley, looks forward to the intimacy and steadiness of marriage. Pam plays a sympathetic go-between trying to resolve matters between Justin and Louise while mocking the rivalry between Dickie and Henry until she realizes that flame for Henry is taking on some heat even unending glasses of wine can’t cool. Add into the mix a priceless Ming vase Muriel had sent to the club, the prevalence of golf paraphernalia around the tap room, Dickie’s hideous sweaters, and Muriel’s bulldozer approach to most things, and you have complications galore.

NealBoxLudwig provides Roudebush will a healthy arsenal of comic bits, and the director, while maintaining a solid core of reality, makes every one of them pay. Even the far-fetched in “The Fox on the Fairway” seems plausible is his and his cast’s capable hands. Shtick, when it appears, doesn’t seem excessive because we know each of the characters, even Louise, has his or her little quirk that can set everything all of the characters have built up akilter. Roudebush and company have managed to combine size and comic tone with behavior on a human scale. Even Muriel, the most functionary of the characters, described by Dickie as having a tread so definite and heavy she walks like a human tank, manages to shake her stereotype to turn “Fox’s” boil into a pleasing calmness.

“Fox on the Fairway” is a comedy, so all major plot lines work out as the audience would want them, but it’s fun to see all of the obstacles Ludwig invents and the way Roudebush leads his ensemble to their satisfying resolution.

Will Dennis is a loveable clown as Justin. The minute you see him, you fear he’ll never be able to hold the job by which he’s planned his marriage. He seems too absentminded, scattered, and clumsy. He’s already annoying Bingham by not being where he’s supposed to when Bingham storms on stage looking for him.

To the audience, the flaws are endearing. Justin comes across as a generally nice, happy soul who is thrilled to act on his love but who just might be too incompetent for extended employment.

We are told of some of Justin’s traits before we see them. Louise is clear about how incorrigibly loony Justin becomes when he’s riled. She takes the trouble to lie about whether his grandmother’s ring fit her finger because she thought something so incidental and fixable would upset him considering he was so proud of his sentimental surprise.

Dennis finds ways to play every aspect of Justin. Generally, we see the everyday guy who is scraping through his first day of work with assistance from Louise and Pam, who knows Louise’s sad background and tries to be a mother figure to her. But Dennis lets out the stops when Justin goes into one of his snits.

Of course, a major setback occurs just as Justin is about to return to the tournament following a rain delay that halted play with Justin enjoying a nine-point lead.

Dirk Durossette’s set involves a lot of doors, some swinging, some really doorways, and Dennis has a knack for darting in and out of them with abandon, often with Bingham, Louise, or Pam in his heels.

Dennis has had an impressive and varied year in the time between doing “A Thousand Clowns” at Montgomery Theatre and “The Fox on the Fairway.” In most roles, he moved and appeared like a middle-aged man. Playing Justin, who one judges to be in his early-to-mid-twenties, rejuvenates him. In look, demeanor, and motion, you would swear Dennis is just a boy. He, who in “Clowns” was like a resurrected Peter Falk, played Justin as an average youth with an unaverage love for Louise and far from average golf ability. His reversing of age didn’t astound as much as it showed Dennis’s versatility and readiness to play two generations of roles.

Peter Bisgaier is the one who holds “Fox” together by linking all of the plot lines. His Bingham reminds you of all the men who see in commercials, men friends tell me are accurately depictedl but who are unlike anyone I’ve met, who worry about whether a neighbor’s lawn is greener than theirs , get competitive over Christmas decorations, or become jealous over someone getting a new car. He’s always in high dudgeon, constantly looking for things he can make Justin or Louise do, and nervous about everything Dickie, Pam, or Muriel mention to him.

Bisgaier makes Henry a big-mouthed, loud-voiced taskmaster who, for all of his bluster, is afraid of his shadow and unsure how to do his job without cheating or bending rules to proceed.

There’s always a nervousness to Bisgaier’s Bingham. Leader though he is, you can always sense he’s wondering when someone will find out he’s a fake and expose him. Or worse, cancel his contract as CEO at Quail Valley! You see Henry’s insecurity even as he barks orders to Louise or tries to coax Justin to get over his bout of anxiety so he can complete his round and save Henry’s job and marriage to Muriel.

Bisgaier captures traits of a lot of bosses I’ve met who were scared people might find out how little they knew. He’s executive and plays at decisiveness while he’s really flying by the seat of his pants and is aware of it. He creates a fine comic persona that serves him in all scenes that involve Quail Valley or Dickie. Scenes with Pam are a different matter. Bisgaier plays them well enough, but you never see Henry coming around to having affection for Pam the way Peakes makes it totally clear Pam is interested.

Karen Peakes’s Pam is a woman I know I’d have as a friend. Though she doesn’t overtly flout suburban Stepfordism, she has enough contempt to laugh at it and mean it.

Pam looks like a typical woman, but she is not. She has been married three times but never once for an entire year. She thinks she’s slipping when it takes until 10 a.m. for her to have her first drink. She lives life on her own terms, and they include being as free as she’d like with men. Seeing Dickie only reminds her how lucky she is to be so independent.

Peakes makes Pam intelligent and fun. She may say things her peers would find outrageous, but Pam doesn’t care if someone spreads the gossip she begins. She is a confident free spirit who has the money, guts, and fortitude to get what she wants when she wants it. She is also a good listener and becomes the catalyst for Justin and Louise resolving their differences.

Naomi Weiss has an open ingénue way about her. Louise is nobody’s fool, but she is young and has a lot to learn, especially when it comes to being absolute about a man. Weiss gave good readings and was especially good in the healing scenes between Pam and Louise.

Joe Guzmán embodies the daunting well-old-chap-I’m-here-to-beat-you-again swagger Dickie uses to torment Bingham, who falls for any and all bait.

Guzmán’s Dickie is the consummate tease, the kind that knows he has all the marbles in his pocket and wangles you into a bet he’s sure to win yet still can’t let up and must tell ethnic jokes, lead Bingham to a fool’s paradise, and be flippant with Pam about their brief time as a couple.

Dickie is less a villain than a rallying ground. He usually represents the “other” and makes a nuisance of himself in his relentless picking on the more sensitive Bingham, wearing his horrible sweaters, and being a congenial but authentic adversary.

Gerre Garrett is rougher hewn is her acting style than her castmates. Her straightforward Muriel doesn’t seem to fit in the backbiting world of the country club. She rises above her disregard for her husband’s set but prefers to stay to herself at her store rather than be a part of it.

Muriel, you can tell, understands her situation, especially when she sees Henry and Pam together, and assesses it privately. She has gotten few rewards from her marriage to Bingham and may even relieved to think Pam might take him off her hands. Garrett comes on as the tyro Guzmán’s Dickie describes, but her performance takes on texture and changes your opinion of Muriel as you get to know her better.

Dirk Durossette’s tap room is quite handsome with large windows that look out on the Quail Valley course and a bar area and passages that speak the kind of class Henry Bingham would want for his club’s image. On the stage right wall is a poster for the holy or holies to the golfer, St. Andrew’s in Scotland, where golfing began. Jillian Keys did a fine job dressing everyone whether in gold duds or formal wear. Her evening dress for Naomi Weiss’s Louise is especially good. I also like the dress Keys chose for Pam, but I would have trimmed two pieces from the neckline that seem to get in the way and look as if they were dyed a shade lighter than the rest of the gown.

“The Fox on the Fairway” runs through Sunday, November 22, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $36 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting www.act2.org.

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