Ken Ludwig, Tony-award-winning author of plays "Lend Me a Tenor, "Crazy For You" and "Twentieth Century," almost never sees productions of his plays after their premiere — even ones in the D.C. area, where he makes his home. But he paid a visit to the Firebelly Productions performance of "Moon Over Buffalo" on Saturday, Nov. 6.
"This cast is the equal to any cast I've ever seen do this play," he said in a Q&A session after the performance, later adding that he hadn't seen it since the production on Broadway, which starred Carol Burnett, a few years ago.
The production that inspired him to visit a local performance was put on by a two-year-old Arlington theater company with a mission of offering opportunities to young actors. Firebelly Productions, a not-for-profit venture, has staged such plays as John Steinbeck’s "of Mice and Men," Ludwig’s "Lend Me a Tenor," and Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." The last production was performed in Prague in the Czech Republic this summer, after its Arlington run.
The relationship with Ludwig started when he noticed that Firebelly was performing "Lend Me a Tenor" and stopped by a rehearsal. After learning more about the theater, he asked to be informed about their future activities, producer Barbara Wathall said. They did that, sending off press packets, postcards and other materials. When they decided to do "Moon Over Buffalo," he agreed to do a question-and-answer session in conjunction with one of the theater's performances.
"MOON OVER BUFFALO" is a fast-paced comedy about an aging theatrical couple, George and Charlotte Hay, played by Karl Kippola and Sarah Imes, who learn that director Frank Capra plans to visit their matinee performance as a precursor to casting them in a film. Complicating matters are their visiting daughter (Ann Walker), her wide-eyed fiancé (William Jenkins), Charlotte's mother, the nearly-deaf wardrobe mistress (Jean Hudson Miller), an amorous lawyer (Brian Farrell), and an actress (Lauren Antonia Griffen) who has some bad news for George.
The nine-member cast is composed entirely of local talent. Kippola is from Hyattsville, Md.; Imes is from Reston; Miller and Josh Drew, who plays stage manager Paul, live in Washington, D.C.; Farrell is from Leesburg; Griffen lives in Woodbridge; and Walker and Jenkins live in Alexandria. Ashburn resident Karen Schlumpf, a fight choreographer for the company who plays a stagehand and a soldier, completes the cast.
Ludwig said that the play came out of an article he read about an acting couple who fought and came back together. After some thought, he decided to set the play in the 1950's — "because I love the '50's" — and the world of repertory theater.
While his involvement in the Firebelly performance tempted him to revise some parts of the play, he made few, if any, changes in the end. "It's done when it opens on Broadway, and I usually never see shows again," Ludwig said. One change he was able to make from the Broadway production was restoring some sword fights. On Broadway, Carol Burnett's fear of fighting with swords led to the substitution of other action sequences, he said.
However, he opted not to change the very ending of the play. In the past, producers had argued that the play should end with one big line. Ludwig wrote it to end with the main characters squabbling, symbolizing that life goes on. "I still like it this way," he said.
FIREBELLY OPTED to do "Moon Over Buffalo" because they knew Ludwig plays were well-received by the audience, cast and crew, said Wathall. "His kind of humor is so fun and so popular," she said, adding that the play is well-suited to the company. "To do good comedy, you have to be a team, and we're very much a team company."
In addition, doing a comedy fit with the Firebelly mission of helping young performers, said director Kathi Gollwitzer. "Comedy requires a lot of technical work. It has to be clean, it has to be sharp, and that experience is a great training piece," she said.
As a director, she was most challenged by keeping the play's pace up while still allowing actors to portray the show's emotional grounding. "It's a challenge to stage something so it happens quickly but honestly, and you don't forget a detail," said Gollwitzer.
Wathall says she's been overwhelmed by the reception the production has received, especially the night Ludwig came.
"When he was talking about us, I could have wept," Wathall said. "I went home and told my daughter it felt like Christmas."
Gollwitzer echoes her sentiments. "For someone who has a Tony award on his shelf to turn around and come into an area with a new company, with new and young performers, is just a wonderful thing. He's giving back to performers who are at the beginning of their career, and many people don't do that."
The next step for the company is a new writer festival in May, featuring new plays "Conversing Elevens" and "Not So Soft," said Gollwitzer. The productions will be performed at a theatrical festival in Hong Kong after their Arlington run.