American playwright Ken Ludwig, author of such popular farces as “Moon Over Buffalo,” takes a shot at P.G. Wodehouse with his new comedy, “The Fox on the Fairway.” The English humorist’s most enduring fame stems from the fictional upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his unflappable manservant Jeeves. Wodehouse also devoted many short stories to golf, sending addle-minded aristocrats onto the links with mashies, niblicks and other oddly nicknamed clubs.
Wodehouse published fiction for nearly seven decades, but he mostly focused on England before World War I. Ludwig’s “The Fox on the Fairway” takes place “this year” in the Tap Room of Quail Valley, an American country club populated by dim-witted social climbers and their hapless employees. The play isn’t up to par with Wodehouse’s work, but Aurora Theatre’s production, directed by Kevin Gillese, assembles a team of comedic pros at their peak.
“Fairway” begins on the day of Quail Valley’s annual golf tournament with its archrival, Crouching Squirrel Country Club. Quail Valley’s harried president, Bingham (Dan Triandiflou), plans to break the club’s losing streak by planting a ringer on Quail Valley’s team. Bingham is so confident that he makes a huge bet with Crouching Squirrel’s president, Dickie (Robin Bloodworth), a genial, malapropism-prone bully wearing the most visually painful golf attire imaginable. Bingham even includes his wife’s antiques shop as part of the wager, only to discover that Dickie has snatched Quail Valley’s ringer for Crouching Squirel’s team.
The frantic Bingham discovers that his new assistant, Justin (Jacob York), has prodigious golfing powers and immediately bends the club rules to put him on the team. Unfortunately, if Justin gets upset, his golf game goes to pieces. So, of course, problems immediately arise with the young man’s engagement to Louise (Jenny Holden), a chirpy waitress at the club. Can Bingham and fellow club officer Pamela (Courtney Patterson) keep Justin’s head in the game?
Compared with the Rube Goldberg complexities of a classic farce such as “Noises Off,” “The Fox on the Fairway” proves considerably more conventional, revisiting the dalliances and deceptions of centuries of stage comedy. A show like this is only as good as its cast, and “Fairway’s” cast is very good indeed, presenting characters with poor impulse control and larger-than-life quirks without going so far over the top as to kill the humor.
In real life, most of us would never bark something like “Not now, you idiot!,” as much as we might enjoy doing it. But “Fairway’s” characters quickly drop the genteel manners of club members and let their base selves run rampant. Triandiflou particularly shines as Bingham fails to keep his mounting panic in check. The flashing whiteness of his eyes and teeth practically put spotlights on the role’s terror and irritation, and at times he literally bounces in the air in frustration. If you could use a time machine to pit comic actors against each other, Triandiflou’s banter with Bloodworth is comparable to Tony Randall vs. Alec Baldwin.
York makes the most of some inspired bits of physical humor, such as Justin’s preposterous pre-putting ritual or his tendency to collapse into a blubbering heap when faced with bad news. Holden presents Louise as a bubbly sexpot with a constantly out-thrust chest, like a Playboy magazine cartoon come to life, but despite the helium heights of her voice, she eventually conveys the character as being brighter and more capable than a clichéd dumb blonde.
Patterson seems a little young to play the oft-married, hard-drinking Pamela (a year ago she played one of a trio of nubile stewardesses in Aurora’s “Boeing Boeing”), but her slapstick talent remains undiminished, whether she’s faking a case of hysterical blindness or making a series of disgusted faces as an oyster slips down her dress.
Suehyla El-Attar gamely attempts to humanize the play’s most hyberbolic role, Bingham’s nagging wife Muriel. El-Attar practically goose-steps across the stage as a raging, disrespected spouse, but Ludwig writes the character so broadly that perhaps no flesh-and-blood actress could live up to her. Muriel makes her strongest impression as an angry, unintelligible voice on the telephone, comparable to Charlie Brown’s off-screen teacher.
Gilesse’s direction sets the right note of heightened behavior, so we sit back and chuckle when the cast chase one another across the set while “Flight of the Bumblebee” plays. To borrow a sporting metaphor, a good farce less resembles a leisurely day on the golf course than a lucky game of putt-putt. “The Fox in the Fairway” doesn’t sink a hole in one, but it sends the ball off the wall, through the windmill, over the puddle and within an inch of the cup.
“The Fox on the Fairway.” Through May 27. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike Street, Lawrenceville. Thursdays-Fridays 8 p.m.; Saturdays 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays 2:30 p.m. $16-22. 770-476-7926, www.auroratheatre.com.