At this stage in its development, “Be My Baby,” the latest comic concoction from Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”), seems little more than a serviceable star vehicle built for two. But with Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter as the stellar passengers in the world premiere production at Houston’s Alley Theater, Ludwig’s lightweight work manages to amuse even as it cruises along a predictable path.
Play is the second Ludwig work to debut at the Alley, after last year’s unveiling of his frantic, fitfully funny comedy about cross-dressing con men, “Leading Ladies.” In sharp contrast, “Be My Baby” is more subdued, and much more sentimental, as it wrings laughs from the classic device of forcing warily attracted opposites into close quarters.
In this case, the initially hostile, inevitably heart-bound characters are John Campbell (Holbrook), an irascible, elderly Scotsman, and Maud Kinch (Carter), a somewhat prissy and pretentious Londoner of a certain age. They’re brought together at the ancestral mansion of John’s ingenuous ward, Christy McCall (Ty Mayberry), for McCall’s marriage to Gloria Nance (Elizabeth Bunch), Maud’s flighty niece.
John and Maud take an instant and intense dislike to each other. Their animosity is scarcely ameliorated by Maud’s decision to move into the mansion (where John also resides) for a long-term stay.
Several months down the road, however, the mismatched pair must set aside their differences when Gloria gives birth to a stillborn child. Tragically, the young woman is told she can bear no other children. Fortuitously, she learns of an available baby in San Francisco. So while Gloria recovers from her trauma in the care of her well-meaning but mostly clueless husband, John and Maud are sent to San Fran to handle the paperwork and secure the infant.
Despite the naked contrivances of the early scenes — and despite the emotional whiplash of sudden tragedy surrounded by sitcom quips — director John Rando (“Urinetown”) does a first-rate job of sustaining a steadily brisk pace with smooth scene transitions.
It helps that Alexander Dodge has designed clever minimalist sets for positioning against evocative panoramas of the play’s two settings (the Scottish countryside, the San Francisco skyline). But it helps even more that the two leads are such thoroughgoing professionals that they can infuse their generically brittle give-and-take with barbed wit and gleeful nastiness. Real life husband and wife Holbrook and Carter bring out the best in each other.
After a hilarious first-act scene aboard a transatlantic flight — Maud has never flown before and needs alcohol to douse her panic — “Be My Baby” settles into a slower, steadier groove as Ludwig uses every trick in the book to delay the older couple’s return to Scotland (a heart attack here, a bureaucratic complication there). Naturally, John and Maud grow fonder of each other as they become increasingly attached to the baby in their care. Just as naturally, convenient complications back in Scotland are introduced (but not, unfortunately, convincingly dramatized) to ensure a happily ever after ending.
With Holbrook and Carter effortlessly dominating the Alley production, Bunch and Mayberry earn credit simply for holding their own in thinly written parts. Alley veterans James Black and Robin Moseley appear in several brief supporting roles, and occasionally earn enthusiastic guffaws.
“Be My Baby” is set in 1962, and despite a couple of anachronistic jokes (including a rather unsettling reference to herpes), the play actually feels like something that could have been produced on Broadway 43 years ago. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine, say, Alec Guinness and Rosalind Russell in a Technicolor movie adaptation, and several other notables in dinner theater revivals throughout the ’70s. How well the play fares with contemporary auds will depend on how much older theatergoers enjoy its comforting air of spirit-lifting, nostalgia-inducing quaintness.