Ken Ludwig: Master of Stage Mysteries—at the Moment
It’s no mystery why Ken Ludwig loves writing about murder.
“The murder-mystery genre is great fun,” says the prolific playwright in a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “People just love mysteries.”
It all began for him with the 2011 play The Game’s Afoot, which centers on Connecticut actor William Gillette, who gained fame and fortune playing Sherlock Holmes for decades, starting at the turn of the last century. In Ludwig’s version, Gillette becomes embroiled in a murder mystery at his castle-like home on the Connecticut River.
That play, presented last fall at Ivoryton Playhouse, had won an Edgar Allen Poe Award, which spurred Ludwig’s interest in continuing to pursue the art of mystery writing for the stage.
In 2015, Ludwig took on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth directly and became a name-above-the-title himself with Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. Long Wharf Theatre will present its own production at the New Haven theater Wednesday, Feb. 28 to Sunday, March 25.
The style of that work received its inspiration from a previous hit.
Ludwig says he fell in love with the puckish tone of the stage adaptation of another famous mystery, The 39 Steps.
“My kids and I had a great time watching that rollicking adventure story when we saw it in London and I decided I wanted to try something like that,” he recalls.
His mystery-writing bandwagon continued when he was approached by the Agatha Christie Estate, which was interested in expanding the brand and having her many mysteries adapted to the stage, television, and film. (Surprisingly, only a few of her mystery novels and stories have been adapted to the stage—even though one of them, The Mousetrap, is the longest-running play in British theater history and is still running in London after 66 years.)
For his stage adaptation, Ludwig picked one of Christie’s killer titles: Murder on the Orient Express. Through the novel was filled with many characters and the popular 1974 film (and last year’s remake) was also well-populated with characters, Ludwig managed to cut things down a bit, thinning down the suspects from 12 to 8, and making it more commercially viable for regional theaters to produce the work.
It had its world premiere last May at McCarter Theatre at Princetown University and that production, with a few cast changes, will play Hartford Stage starting today (Thursday, Feb. 15) and running through Sunday, March 18.
Though it has it’s playful moments, it’s not in the tongue-in-cheek style of Baskerville.
“It’s glamorous and it’s romantic,” says Ludwig.
What is the enduring appeal of Holmes and mysteries in general?
“Perhaps it has to do with the bad guy being discovered in the end, giving the audience the feeling that there’s a sense of control in the universe,” he says. “But they’re really, really hard to write.”
Ludwig says he’s giving mysteries a rest for a while and returning to comedy—he is best known for the farce Lend Me a Tenor and the musical comedy Crazy for You, which is expected to have a Broadway revival next season.
His next play will be The Gods of Comedy, premiering next season at the McCarter.
“It’s a romantic comedy about a woman who is the head of a college classics department who is revisited by the ancient god of comedy to get her out of her difficulties,” says. “Comedies are really where I live.”
Another play in the wings is a two-actor comedy about his parents meeting during World War II and getting married.
“It seems like a nice story to tell,” he says, adding, “It’s also the first time I’m tapping into an autobiographical area.”
Not enough? Yet another play that’s in the early stages of development is a play set in 1769 about David Garrick, the legendary English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer.
“I love what I do,” says Ludwig of his career. “I just got lucky being able to make a living at writing plays that I would want to go to.”
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.