Balboa Park institution puts up story of Greek deities who try to help a hapless modern-day academic
In stage creations from the Broadway hit “Lend Me a Tenor” to the Old Globe-bred detective sendup “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” the playwright Ken Ludwig has demonstrated a gift for the seriously funny.
But for Ludwig, the serious has to come before the funny — even when he’s writing about characters whose very existence is devoted to laughter.
“I take my characters very seriously or else I can’t write for them,” says the playwright, whose world-premiere work “Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy” is about to open its run at the Globe.
“I can’t write characters that are just kind of silly — that’s just not what I do. I take the story deeply seriously and I take the characters seriously because they’re on journeys. And some characters are darker and some are lighter.”
The key, Ludwig says, is to believe in them “so deeply and so absolutely,” no matter what. Even when those characters are bumbling Greek deities sent down to try and straighten out a lady’s life in modern-day New Jersey.
That’s the case with “The Gods of Comedy,” a Globe co-production with the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey, where the work had its initial run in March.
The play centers on a pair of young professors, Daphne (Shay Vawn) and Ralph (Jevon McFerrin), who make a momentous discovery of a lost manuscript by the great Greek tragedian Euripides.
Then, Daphne promptly loses it, and in desperation she calls out to the ancient Greek gods to save her.
For better or worse, two of them — Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro) and Dionysus (Brad Oscar) — heed her plea. And since comedy is in both of these deities’ job descriptions, their attempts to help come with all kinds of amusing complications.
(The cast of the show, directed by Amanda Dehnert, also includes Steffanie Leigh as Zoe/Brooklyn, Keira Naughton as Dean Trickett, and George Psomas as Aristide/Aleksi/Ares.)
“Gods” is actually Ludwig’s third world premiere to hit the Globe in four years, after “Baskerville” in 2015 and “Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!” in 2017.
The playwright and Harvard Law School grad (he was a practicing attorney for more than a decade while launching his theater career) is perhaps still best-known for “Lend Me a Tenor,” the 1989 Broadway hit comedy that’s frequently revived around the world.
But his literary tastes are voracious and wide-ranging, from the Bard to, yes, Greek mythology.
“I’m a big Shakespeare guy,” says Ludwig, who in 2013 actually wrote a book on the subject, “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.”
Mentioning that he’s now reading a book called “The Club,” about intellectual ferment in 1700s London, Ludwig says: “That’s the stuff I live for. That’s where I am — that’s what I do every minute that I’m not actually writing or doing something with the family. I’m reading books about these sorts of things.
“And mythology looms completely widely in that area of intellectual literary interests. I think ‘The Odyssey’ is sort of the greatest book ever written. I’ve read lots of translations of it, zillions of times. And that tells us everything about the gods.”
Ludwig can’t quite say what told him to write a play about the gods of comedy, but he does recall that the concept popped up three or four years ago.
“I came up with the idea — I don’t know why — that gods from Mount Olympus come down, and because they’re the gods of comedy, they’re going to help this woman sort her life out. Because she doesn’t have much of a life.
“And then she gains a sense of perspective and self-confidence, thanks to them. That’s the story — that’s it.”
Cannizzaro, a rising New York star who is reprising her turn as Thalia from the McCarter production, suggests it’s maybe not so simple as the playwright makes it sound.
Ludwig is “sort of a humor scientist, I think,” says Cannizzaro, who herself is a self-described “science geek” and was a Space Camp regular as a kid.
“He’s so dedicated to the structure of how jokes play. So he’s always looking for ways to craft the perfect joke, and to get the rhythm of it to land perfectly. He’s an amazing writer in that way — he’s constantly working and creating.”
Oscar, who’s likewise returning to “Gods” from the McCarter run, is a two-time Tony Award nominee, for “The Producers” in 2001 and “Something Rotten!” in 2015.
In the latter show, he played Thomas Nostradamus (a nephew to the famous soothsayer), who suggests that the next big thing will be something called the “musical” — a notion that his Renaissance contemporaries treat with ridicule.
“I feel like there are certain similarities with that role, if any, that I’ve played,” says Oscar of how Dionysus fits into his path through theater.
“Here was a guy who had such a zest for life, in a way, and sort of living in that world of possibility. And the funny thing about Dionsysus is that his whole mission, if you will, is to have a good time, enjoy life, savor the delicious things we have in the midst of all the chaos and craziness.
“Then you start a play like this, and you’re playing this character who is iconic, in a way, and could be anyone and everyone, really.
“So I was like, ‘Who’s my Dionysus going to be?’ And my Dionysus is just all those parts of me that are like, ‘OK, let’s play, let’s have a good time!’”
Those ideas dovetail with Cannizzaro’s own thinking about how the gods maybe aren’t all that different from the rest of us.
“What has always really fascinated me about the Greek gods in general is how human they are,” she says.
“I mean, they’re gods, but they have this huge mix of emotions that are very, very human. I think that’s what keeps us coming back to those stories — we’re able to see a reflection of ourselves in them.”
And beyond all that, says Ludwig, the gods just make for good theater.
“They create thunder and lighting — that’s just what they do!,” the playwright says. “And theater is a great place to do that.
“In a way, what I tried to do so much in this play is to talk about the phenomenon of comedy. What is comedy?
“What the gods represent is the comic spirit, and the comic spirit doesn’t always make things right. In fact, it usually gets things wrong.”
Which leads us to what would seem a natural question: Had Ludwig tried to summon those deities himself?
His reply: “I keep trying!”
Catching up with Ken
A look at some of the playwright Ken Ludwig’s most notable works:
“Lend Me a Tenor": Ludwig earned a Tony Award nomination for this 1989 farce, his first work to land on Broadway. The much-revived work revolves around the confusion that ensues when a famous tenor winds up indisposed and an impostor tries to take his place.
“Crazy for You”: Ludwig wrote the book for this celebration of the music of the Gershwins; the piece landed on Broadway in 1992, and earned the Tony as best musical.
“Moon Over Buffalo": This third Broadway entry from Ludwig is famous for its physical comedy. The original 1995 production of the show-biz-centered piece starred Carol Burnett as the faded Broadway star Charlotte Hay.
“Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery": The first of Ludwig’s Old Globe world premieres, this comic interpretation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle detective classic had five actors playing scads of characters.
“Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!”: This fresh look at the classic fable — a longtime favorite of Ludwig’s — became the playwright’s second Old Globe world premiere in 2017.
“Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy”
When: Previews begin May 11. Opens May 16. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through June 16.
Where: Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623