- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

For breaking local theatrical records, Tony Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig definitely has raised the bar. His adaptation of the 1932 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur classic “Twentieth Century” opens Monday at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, to be followed Sept. 12 by a Ludwig original titled “Shakespeare and Hollywood” at Arena Stage. Both are billed as world premieres. Both have a guaranteed afterlife elsewhere.

For starters, “Twentieth Century” is scheduled for Broadway in March with Alec Baldwin in the cast. “Shakespeare and Hollywood” — inspired by the 1935 Max Reinhardt movie version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — has been promised to England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, which commissioned it. Both contain larger-than-life characters and rapid-fire pacing — Mr. Ludwig’s notable talents.

What at first would seem to be a coincidence of timing actually was something of a plan — a comic conspiracy, if you will. Signature’s Eric Schaeffer, who is directing “Twentieth Century,” called Arena’s Molly Smith and suggested they “make an event of it.” She agreed and suggested Kyle Donnelly to be in charge of Arena’s season opener. They thought it was high time to lure the playwright away from his usual venue on Broadway’s more commercial boards.

A genial and enthusiastic Mr. Ludwig couldn’t have agreed more.

“I can tell you truthfully, the happiest theater experience I have ever had is here,” he said one afternoon recently, stifling only one yawn while waiting for a dress rehearsal to begin at Signature after attending a run-through at Arena that morning. It’s the first time he has had work performed in either place.

“A lot of my work gets done when I get to hear it aloud,” he says, noting the substantial rewriting that goes on through various readings and rehearsals. A passionate fan of the Bard and a founding member of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, he wrote “Shakespeare In Hollywood” from scratch.

In adapting “Twentieth Century,” Mr. Ludwig changed about 80 percent of the Hecht-MacArthur play’s original dialogue. The cast of 30 characters — way beyond the means of most productions these days — is now a manageable and affordable 10, and references that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to a contemporary audience have been updated.

He credits Roger Stevens with introducing him to “Twentieth Century” in a book of plays by Charles MacArthur, the late theater guru and Kennedy Center founder, put into his hands. Between plays about 2 years ago he happened to pick it off his shelf. Impressed all over again, he arranged to get the rights, and when his first draft of the adaptation was finished, he sent it off to Mr. Schaeffer for his reaction.

Perhaps best known as author of “Crazy for You” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” which had long, much-lauded runs on stages all over the world, Mr. Ludwig — who refuses on principle to give his age — also wrote “Moon Over Buffalo” with Carol Burnett in the lead and several other plays and film scripts.

Over and above the notion of adding distinguished regional theaters to his laurels is the satisfaction he has of being able to go home at night. Careening across ocean and country only does so much for family relationships, even when the successful, in-demand father can persuade children Olivia, 12, and Jack, 6, that they are in this whirlwind career together.

“You have to help me,” he tells them. “If it is a success, it’s your success, too, because Daddy has to earn a living for the family so we can live in our house and eat our dinner, and I need you all to pitch in and not complain and say ‘Why, Daddy, couldn’t you take me here or there?’” Somehow he manages to take them on a few kiddie sport and entertainment outings between rewriting four projects simultaneously.

“It’s a little crazy right now, but I’m blessed. I love it,” he says.

Wife Adrienne George — a lawyer, as was Mr. Ludwig in even more frenetic times past — currently is a full-time mom. A graduate of Haverford College, Harvard and Cambridge universities, Mr. Ludwig gave up the law — his day job, he calls it — permanently in 1995, having spent a crazy decade or more writing from 4:30 to 8:30 each morning and then going to work at the downtown law firm of Steptoe and Johnson. His specialties were international law and, later, intellectual property.

“I couldn’t do it today,” he says, joking that he was “a mere 12 at the time. You have to be pretty young to do two full-time jobs that long.” A native of York, Pa., he is the son of a dermatologist and a former New York showgirl and remembers the time when he was 6 and the theater bug bit him — hard. He was taken backstage to meet Cyril Ritchard, who was appearing on Broadway in “Visit to a Small Planet” by Gore Vidal. He still has the program the famous actor signed for him.

In addition to directing a public reading of his new play, “Leading Ladies,” at Signature Sept. 22 — it will have its world premiere at the Cleveland Playhouse next season — he is involved in a new $12 million musical based on Irving Berlin’s music. Commissioned by the Berlin trust with the backing of the composer’s three daughters, the latter show has the working title “Let Yourself Go!” The Berlin project had him on a rush trip to New York Monday for a session with producer Roger Berlind in preparation for a probable Broadway opening a year from now.

Normally, when writing a first draft of anything, he says he works quietly and steadily on just one project at a time. He takes a cup of coffee and turns off the phone until being called to dinner. Eventually, he expects to have another chunk of free time to spend nonstop in his home office. “I’ll just do a new play until the end, and when it is done, I’ll be ready to send it to Molly or Eric and say, ‘Are you interested?’”

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