The problem with playwright Ken Ludwig is that you never know what you’re going to get.
Is it a silly sham?Lend me a tenor), stupid farce (Leading ladies), whimsical adaptation (The Three Musketeers, Murder on the Orient Express, Treasure Island), something acceptable (Crazy for You), or impossible to seeBe My Baby, Shakespeare in Hollywood, An American in Paris)? It is everywhere.
One of America’s most successful playwrights and a two-time Tony Award winner, his plays are consistently produced around the world. His last, Dear Jack, dear Louise (2019), is a deeply personal and heartfelt Valentine for his parents, who had a correspondence dating from 1941 to 1945 and never met until VE Day in New York City. I suppose this is basically true, as there are hundreds of letters between them that Ludwig has extracted to build his work. It’s so unlikely, why bother making it up?
Jack (Nick Farco) is a young doctor just out of medical school; Louise (Alexis Santiago) an aspiring actress. Her parents are friends and they think that this unlikely couple could be a good match. Write to him, his father coaxes him. Jack does so, makes an appointment, and begins the play.
What we get is an epistolary drama, where both parties write and receive letters. They inhabit their own side of the stage with a mailbox in the middle. They look at us while they read and write their letters, but they never look at each other. This device removes any tension directly from the play, no matter how authentic the actors are.
Farco and Santiago make a good couple. At first, he is awkward and shy, she is strong and confident. As the years go by, his experience in the war opens him up to buried emotions, while his attempts to achieve stardom on Broadway soften it. The big question is whether their relationship will survive the long distance romance amid the devastation of WWII. Well, of course I do, because we know from the beginning that Jack and Louise are the author’s parents. How else could there be a little Ludwig?
So where is the drama? I guess in the little details of your daily life. Against her advice, Louise visits Jack’s parents in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Jack’s family is huge, 11 aunts, and one of them accidentally knocks Louise out of an upstairs window. True or not, this is the classic Ludwig – go for the easy laugh. Meanwhile, Jack is in the hellish throes of D-Day, his scrubs soaked with blood from amputations. The dichotomy between Louise’s benign hosting duties at Stage Door Canteen and Jack’s traumatic surgeries couldn’t be more disparate. At a certain point, we stop worrying because we know where this is going. All the heartbreak, all the primal screams (Louise has two dramatic outbursts) are a showcase.
As usual, the AD Players production is lovingly detailed. In the stunning Kirk S. Domer set, Louise has a make-up table with marquee lights, a dressing room screen with 1940s program posters, and a beautiful cathedral radio; Jack’s space has a trunk and desk with a large airplane wing as a backdrop. At the beginning of the play, large panels appear on view: a letter, a Booth Theater ticket, a 3 ¢ stamp, a clipping of Hedy Lamarr (Jack’s favorite star), a Western Union logo, an impressive Empire State Building. Kristina M. Miller outfits reveal everyday 1940s glamor: pleated tops, pom pom bedroom mules, army mufti, seam tights. Shawn W. St. John’s sound design overlays the action with catchy Big Band numbers and incoming artillery fire.
Director Kevin Dean keeps the action as mobile as possible, though he struggles with a static script where the actors never interact. This unlikely love story, never entirely satisfying, gets more unlikely the longer it goes on. Is that a no-brainer about love, or Ken Ludwig’s unerring ability to turn true romance into a dime novel?
Dear Jack, Dear Louise continues through October 31 at 7:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 pm Friday; 2:30 pm and 8 pm on Saturdays; 2:30 pm on Sundays. AD Players at the George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. Temperature control on the door. Social distancing in the theater. Masks are required. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $ 36.50- $ 75.