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‘Fox on the Fairway’ Gamely Aims for A Laugh a Minute

The Fox on the Fairway , written by playwright Ken Ludwig, recalls the wacky, many-jokes-per-minute nuttiness of classic British farce. There are a handful of doors on stage, and the play wastes no time having an actor leave through one while a different actor, searching for the first, pops in through another.

It’s a quick declaration of purpose by Ludwig. From the outset, he’s telling us that m issed connections and comic insanity at a high-end country club will be — I’m sorry for this — par for the course.

Yes, The Fox on the Fairway revolves around a golf tournament and, more specifically, a high-stakes bet made by two competitors. The bet is the play’s through-line. The conflicts and misunderstandings stack atop it.

Northern Stage’s production of the play, directed by Maggie Burrows, is lively and funny. The actors ping-pong off each other well — a must for such a fast-paced work — and develop distinct characters despite the constant over-emoting the genre requires.

It goes like this. A pair of hoity-toity country clubs meet annually for a golf tournament. This year, club owner Bingham (an excellent David Bonanno) believes he has a ringer, and agrees to a bet with rival owner Dickie (Jeffrey M. Bender, accenting his villainy by punctuating every third sentence with an evil laugh).

Meanwhile, Justin (Tyler Caffall) and Louise (Jenni Putney), who both work at Bingham’s club, have just gotten engaged. Muriel (Amanda Rafuse), Bingham’s wife, is worried about an expensive vase that will be delivered to the club. Pamela Peabody (Caralyn Kozlowski) is a club member trying to help Bingham win his bet. Most of the characters are either in relationships with each other, pine for each other or have some history otherwise.

The play stumbles out of the gate, which should not be attributed to the actors, all of whom are game to crawl around on the floor, sprint around the set in high heels or wear absolutely garish sweaters.

But Ludwig has to put all the pieces in place, and has some trouble doing so. In the ‑first half of the play’s first act, the script spends time establishing its characters, their relationships and the stakes. Until he gets to the point where the audience is oriented, though, the jokes feel undercooked. An early crack about Harry Potter’s Voldemort is strangely out of place considering the timelessness of everything else.

When the characters have been defined and a vase essential to the story has been planted, the production comes to life. The actors don’t have to strain to land jokes — the sheer anarchy of the first act’s final few minutes has enough momentum that anything would be funny. Even some of the arbitrary sources of conflict that crop up throughout can be brushed aside once the play starts crackling.

Maybe those missteps are a pitfall of farces in general, though. How can the genre’s fever-pitch intensity work if a play has to spend so much time, early on, building its world?

I mean that figuratively. Physically, t he set evokes a country club taproom that disregards time; it could have existed in the present or 75 years ago. The alcohol comes from decanters. The wooden drivers sit in a leather golf bag. The fashion is timeless, too, in that singularly awful style of golf clothing. Dickie’s s lacks have all the subtlety of, well, a farce.

His pants and h ideous sweaters change over time, but he and his fellow five cast members are consistently good. It’s easy to poke holes in Ludwig’s uneven play, but it’s hard to find fault with the way the actors handle it.

“The Fox on the Fairway” runs through Feb. 23, with the official opening performance at 7:30 p.m. tonight. For ticket information and show dates, to go northernstage.org.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.