At Arena: Ken Ludwig’s Parents-to-Be Correspond

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Jake Epstein and Amelia Pedlow in "Dear Jack, Dear Louise" at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography. Courtesy Arena.

On paper, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” doesn’t sound like all that much. The title alone sounds quiet, like paper rustling on a desk, stirred by the opening of a door or a window. It’s an intimate title, like somebody going through a box of mementos.

Then again, with “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” we’re talking about the prolific-prolific and popular-popular playwright Ken Ludwig, a master and mastermind of the art of enduring, endearing and entertaining theatrical works — straight comedies, classic comedies, musicals, children’s plays, genre works that work beyond genre.

That voluminous output began in a big way with the door-slamming comedy “Lend Me a Tenor,” which opened on Broadway in 1989, a farce that out-farced most farces ever written and to some degree resurrected the form, corralling big audiences, Tony Awards and a lasting structure that keeps it appealing and being performed all over the world.

Fame followed, other hits (“Crazy for You”) followed and the work continued. Ludwig in person is a fixture in Washington as elsewhere — he makes his home in Wesley Heights in the Foxhall area — and his works appear and reappear, at venues as varied as the Kennedy Center (way-back-when in 1989 with “Tenor”), the National Theatre, Signature Theatre, Adventure Theatre and Arena Stage.

Now his work is back at work, so to speak, with “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” having no less than a world-premiere production through Dec. 29 at Arena, where his genre-bending comedic and adventurous take on the world’s greatest detective, “Baskerville,” about you-know-who Holmes, was performed.

“Baskerville” was in the tradition of the Ludwig oeuvre — the great entertainer, looking at the popular literary and theatrical world of the past with a knowing eye of what echoes, works and plays well, even in this brisk-paced world. This is the Ludwig world with which we are all familiar, that we know and love more than we may even realize: the world of “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Crazy for You,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” the splendid “Shakespeare In Hollywood” (also at Arena), “Treasure Island,” a stage version of “Treasure Island” and many, really many, others.

“This is, to say the least, very different,” Ludwig said, when asked about “Dear Jack, Dear Louise.” “The play means a lot to me, personally. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”

It’s a play about his parents, Jacob S. Ludwig and Louise Rabiner. And once you start thinking about it, it’s a true act of the imagination that not many of us would even attempt. It’s a Ludwig play in the sense that it’s not a “Long Day’s Journey into Night” approach. It has its romantic and comedic aspects, but is also an attempt to imagine his parents before he got to know them.

“It was difficult, no question, because I had to imagine them before I was born, what they must have or might have been like even before they met,” Ludwig said.

At the time, in 1942, Jack Ludwig was becoming a doctor (he later became a dermatologist in York, Pennsylvania). A U.S. Army captain, he would eventually be sent into the maw of the war in Europe, while Louise Rabiner was in New York, yearning to become a Broadway song-and-dance performer and actress.

“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” uses a series of invented letters, based in fact, between the two. The budding young couple communicates onstage — she, writing from a Brooklyn boarding house; he, writing about his life in the Army, stationed first in Oregon. The production, directed by Jackie Maxwell of “Spunk” fame, stars Jake Epstein and Amelia Pedlow (recently in Studio Theatre’s production of “Doubt”).

“I grew up in a happy family, but my mother and father were two very different people. You can’t imagine. My mother was lively, she was full of imagination. I remember her as being kind of wacky at times in a theatrical way — original, energetic, funny, creative — while my father was quiet, serious, steady and reliable as you go,” Ludwig said. That palette would become the basis of the letters that make up the play.

This is of course the most difficult kind of exploration and writing. “Sure,” Ludwig said, “but it’s exhilarating. You get to pay tribute, to remember, to reimagine and resurrect, too.”

Ludwig’s voice on the phone sounded familiar, as if we’d spoken last week instead of a considerably longer time ago. We were talking then about an upcoming performance of a P. G. Wodehouse-flavored play, and about farce itself, comedy, musicals — wandering afar, much as we did in our recent conversation.

If you look at Ludwig’s plays, you recognize not only a particularity and an affinity, but a playwright who can make everything old new again. Recalling them, you hear things — the doors slamming in a farce, the witty repartee of young lovers trying hard not to fall in love, the sound of tapping feet, the gleeful work of dastardly villains from 19th-century literary works by Dickens, Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson.

“I’m maybe getting used to the idea of doing more straight plays,” Ludwig said. “Certainly, this was a very personal project for me, more personal than any I’ve done.”

 

Dear Jack, Dear Louise

Through Dec. 29

Tickets are $66 to $105

Arena Stage

1101 Sixth St. SW

arenastage.org

202-488-3300

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