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To revive an axiom that President Obama directed at the ideas of a certain failed vice presidential candidate from Alaska: Actors' Playhouse's production of The Fox on the Fairway is, at best, lipstick on a pig. As pretty as the company presents it, it's still an ugly, desperate, virtually witless thing — a madcap farce with as about as many laughs as an average PBS NewsHour. It's been a uniformly successful season for Actors' Playhouse, but I suppose even superior car lots have jalopies.
An homage to English farces of the 1930s, The Fox on the Fairway is the latest effort from Ken Ludwig, an American playwright specializing in old-timey audience-pleasers that tend to make Neil Simon look edgy. His most famous work, Lend Me a Tenor, about mistaken identity and other shenanigans at an opera house, can be an awfully funny night at the theater. But The Fox is a hopeless case. Even in a production chockablock with top South Florida talent, the play feels woefully uninspired, a wheezy example of exhausted escapism.
It's set in the taproom of a country club named Quail Valley, which is preparing for its annual golf tournament against rival club Crouching Squirrel. Mr. Bingham (Ken Clement), Quail Valley's golf director, has been on a losing streak in recent years, but this time he has an ace up his sleeve: a young whiz on the links, slotted into the tourney at the last minute, who seems destined to carry his club to victory. Seconds after making a $200,000 bet with Crouching Squirrel director Dickie (Todd Allen Durkin), Bingham discovers his top player has defected to the Squirrels.
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But it just so happens that Bingham has his own star: a new hire at the country club named Justin (Clay Cartland), an amateur with an astounding average in the mid-60s. As the tournament commences, Justin seems to be dominating. But then a bombshell from his dim fiancée, Louise (Betsy Graver), threatens to torpedo his performance.
And so it goes, with increasingly over-the-top zaniness — switchups and revelations, slammed doors and drunken dances, broken arms and busted PA systems, and plenty of strange couplings and bad golf puns. When Louise proclaims she kissed Justin's balls for good luck, as he clutches a pair of white Titleists, it's indicative of the show's maturity level.
The show is likable in spots thanks to director David Arisco's casting. Clement and Amy McKenna, who plays Dickie's ex-wife and a club member at Quail Valley, have kinetic chemistry in their scenes together, though neither is challenged to perform in directions we haven't seen before. Cartland is an adorable, energetic spark plug, diving with elastic ease into the lunacy of every absurd situation. Graver, who is reduced to ostentatious crying jags as the emotional Louise, and Margot Moreland, who goes through the motions as Bingham's full-figured wife, Muriel, come off as less polished than their colleagues. In fairness, though, Ludwig saddled them with parts so stereotyped that not even Meryl Streep could save them.
If there's a reason to see the show, it's Durkin, an effortlessly flamboyant scene-stealer in scenes desperately in need of theft. The smug, self-satisfied Dickie is a smaller role, but Durkin makes the most of it, sauntering onstage in a procession of ghastly golf sweaters, habitually caressing his upper lip with his tongue, and emitting the nasally laugh of a mustache-twirling villain. He's a sloppy, angular sleazeball more unctuous than an oil spill, occasionally conjuring Bill Murray's lounge singer on Saturday Night Live.
Also on the plus side, Ellis Tillman clearly had a blast with the show's costumes. He not only unearthed some blindingly gaudy sweaters and atrocious polka-dotted pants for Dickie but also tailored a few knockout frocks for Graver and McKenna. Patrick Tennent's lighting design effectively turns the sunlight of a perfect golf day into stormy weather and then gradually, methodically brings back the light when the shower passes.
Gene Seyffer's scenic design, however, misses the mark. From afar, it looks like the venerable taproom of an elite country club, but closer inspection reveals chairs of chipped mahogany and couches and barstools riddled with wear and tear. The coffee table is a cheap IKEA job that says "student housing" more than "prestigious country club." The same can be said for the supposed antique vase, a prop that becomes the source of much attempted comedy in both acts of the play. It looks more like a Goodwill hand-me-down than a priceless heirloom.
One could argue that these deficiencies, as well as certain directorial decisions that don't work — such as Louise's ridiculously excessive bawling — are intentional. Perhaps Arisco wanted to eschew any semblance of realism: to reveal the chinks in the furniture and the incongruous props, to sidestep even an iota of verisimilitude in favor of sledgehammer parody. The fact is, even silly farces have nuggets of truth, and to that end, Arisco and his design team don't add much to Ludwig's juvenile folderol.
If you see The Fox and the Fairway, see it for the actors. From entrance to exit, they're marooned in sand traps, knee-deep in water hazards, and in need of a caddy. At their finest, they somehow get this well-under-par show back on the green, even if a hole in one is never possible. And that's an accomplishment worth more than a polite golf clap.