In a quiet corner of the Chevy Chase Club’s unassuming Winter Center Dining Room, Ken Ludwig sips a cappuccino. The Tony-Award-winning playwright, who lives in the District, spends most weekdays writing, working on new plays or refining whatever is in rehearsal at the moment.
In fact, he carries two folders, one red, one green, in his satchel, which contain scripts in progress. After the cappuccino and a conversation about his latest premiere, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” at Arena Stage, Ludwig plans to hang around in the Winter Center to work.
The chatter of other patrons, the clatter of silverware, is white noise to him as he writes. “I’ll just sit quietly by myself with a little pad in my hand and just write, which I love,” he says.
And while he doesn’t exclusively put pen to paper at the private country club on Connecticut Avenue, he is there regularly. He exercises in the gym and, in good weather, plays golf, poorly he emphasizes.
Ludwig was surprised to learn that the club, which was founded in 1892 by then-Nevada Sen. Francis Newlands, who sought to revoke voting rights for African American men, had a racist past. The elite club, where Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, among other Washington politicos, belong, like many private clubs, had a history of racial exclusion.
“Times have changed,” says Ludwig, 69. “You could say that about so many institutions in the United States with regard to African Americans, Jewish people, immigrants or different religions … but [today] you can’t say, ‘We hold their origins against them.’ That seems so irrelevant because this, like most institutions today, are just completely liberal and every kind of person in the world is a member here.”
A reformed lawyer, Ludwig, the son of a doctor and a one-time Broadway showgirl, had theatrical aspirations from a young age growing up in York, Pa. “We visited my grandparents in Brooklyn over Christmastime … and my parents took my brother and me to a Broadway show, one a year,” Ludwig says. “I got to see some of those great classics … ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ‘Hello Dolly.’”
He attended Haverford College as an English and music major, and when his parents asked about his career aspirations, he recalls, “Well, gee, I’m going to go into the theater. And they said, ‘That doesn’t sound like such a good idea.’” Instead, Ludwig followed his older brother to law school at Harvard, received a scholarship to study at Cambridge University’s Trinity College, and then ended up in Washington as a lawyer at the large corporate firm Steptoe and Johnson.
Many actors and theater people work other jobs, usually in the service industry as waiters. Ludwig realized that law would be a far more lucrative day job to support his theater habit.
“I would get up every single morning at 4 o’clock, to write,” he says. “This was my routine for four or five years: I got up at 4 and I showered, put on my jeans, then I’d write from 4:30 to 8:30, put on my suit and go to work as an associate.”
During that period, he wrote three or four plays for small D.C.-area theaters, mostly produced in church basements. Then he wrote the comedy “Lend Me a Tenor,” and a chance meeting with a British director who fortuitously sent the play to British producer by the name of Andrew Lloyd Webber, changed his life.
After the London West End production, a Broadway run in 1989 received three Tony Awards. “Crazy for You,” “Leading Ladies,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and a 2008 stage adaptation of the film “An American in Paris,” among other plays and musicals, followed.
“I was really on my way in a different world — the commercial theater,” he says. “I was able to leave the law because I was making a living as a playwright.”
He remained in the District and saw his two children, now adults, celebrate their b’nai mitzvah at Washington Hebrew Congregation, where he is still a member.
“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is Ludwig’s third production at Arena Stage. And he noted, it’s his most personal play yet, his first with Jewish content, which uncovers his own family history.
Ludwig re-tells his parents’ World War II love story: his dad, Jacob Ludwig, was a Jewish army captain and his mom, Louise Rabiner, a chorus girl. The playwright recalls hearing how his parents met: both fathers were tailors and friends, one in New York, one in Coatesville, Pa. They thought it would be a good idea to set their children up. The only problem: Jack was stationed on an army base in Oregon, while Louise was working in New York. Their courtship took place entirely through letters.
He had to imagine their correspondence, though. In his youth, Ludwig recalled his mother still had the letters, but at some point she destroyed them, probably because they were intimate love letters that she didn’t want her children to read. Alas, Ludwig says, “I would give anything to have them now.”
Though he doesn’t cite a precipitating event that compelled him to tell his parents’ love story today, because both his parents have been gone for some time, he says, “For some reason now feels like the moment to write this. To some extent, it’s the times that we’re in. They grew up, met and fell in love at a time that was patriotic, when the United States had such great moral fiber and acted on the world stage without hesitation. Much courage was exhibited by the men and women of the United States in so many ways in the military or at home supporting the war.”
“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” pays homage not just to Ludwig’s parents, but to the greatest generation and the indelible contributions it made.
Ludwig ponders how this old-fashioned love story might play to 21st-century audiences. “I think the audience may be very surprised at how this play ends. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it’ll be very unexpected.”
“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” by Ken Ludwig, through Dec. 29, Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington. Tickets: $41-$95. Call 202- 488-3300 or www.arenastage.org.