Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, are about six miles apart, a ten-minute drive in light traffic, which should make September a bit easier for playwright Ken Ludwig—as well as audiences in search of laughter. Ludwig, whose Broadway comedy credits include Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and Crazy for You, has two plays opening this month, one for each theatre. The Arena features his newest comedy, Shakespeare in Hollywood—starring Alice Ripley—set on a movie soundstage in 1934 as the renowned European director Max Reinhardt orchestrates his all star film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast that includes James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown and Olivia de Havilland.
The Signature is presenting Ludwig’s new version of Twentieth Century, the 1932 comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur set aboard the Twentieth Century Limited train from Chicago to The Great White Way. The play became the classic 1934 movie starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as a maniacal Broadway director and his former-shopgirl protégée, and was turned into a Broadway musical, On the Twentieth Century, in the 1970’s by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman.
“My Washington home and the two theatres form pretty much an equilateral triangle,” Ludwig says, “and it’s about 20 minutes for me to each, so that should make the commuting easy.” Both works are set in the thirties and deal with show business, but Ludwig says they have different origins.
Shakespeare in Hollywood began as a commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company to write a comedy for the troupe—and Ludwig says he is in discussions for a production there. “So naturally I thought of Shakespeare,” he says, “and since there has been an explosion in recent years of Shakespeare movies, I naturally thought of Hollywood.” In the new comedy, directed at Arena by Kyle Donnelly, Reinhardt is on the set directing his stars when two strangers appear. “The real Oberon and Puck, at the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream, are heading home, and because the Hollywood set says ‘a wood near Athens,’ Puck takes them to that wood. And Oberon falls in love with a mortal—the actress playing Hermia.”
That was de Havilland, Ludwig says, but because the actress is still alive, he has changed the name to Olivia Darnell. Other characters include Will Hays, the draconian enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code, adopted in 1930 to ensure morality in movies. “Hays tangles with Oberon,” Ludwig says. “Oberon wants revenge, has Puck retrieve the magic flower from Midsummer Night’s Dream and creates havoc in Hollywood. Everyone falls in love with someone they never would have expected to fall in love with.” Ludwig’s version of Twentieth Century—directed at Signature by Eric Schaeffer—began after Ludwig was given a copy of the play as a gift. “I thought it was really good,” he says, “and I wondered why it was rarely performed. I talked to James MacArthur, the son of Charles MacArthur and Helen Hayes, and asked why, and we realized the play required 30 actors. So I asked if I could cut the cast way down so the play could have a life.” Has he succeeded? “It’s down to 12,” he says. “And I may get it down to ten by the time we open.”