Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dying Is Easy. Comedy Is Hard. Farce Is Nigh On Impossible.

Cast of "Don't Dress for Dinner."  Photo by Monica Simoes.

Two chuckles and one half-smile.

That’s the best I could muster for the uninspired bit of nonsense called Don’t Dress for Dinner, a revival of a 20-year-old French sex farce now on view at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.

Written by Marc Camolietti, who three decades earlier penned the much more artistically and commercially successful Boeing-Boeing, this more recent play undoubtedly owes its production to its predecessor.  Boeing-Boeing had an acclaimed run on Broadway in 2008, winning high praise for director Matthew Warchus and Tonys for best revival and best leading actor, well deserved for the extraordinary performance of  Marc Rylance.   That production did everything right, from having the right cast to perfect comic timing.

Don’t Dress For Dinner, adapted into English by Robin Hawdon, suffers from a tremendous lack of imagination, and boasts only one actor, Spencer Kayden (Little Sally in Urinetown) who is able to rise above the mediocre to give the play its only spark of life.

Defining “farce” is not an exact science, but it certainly requires a Rube-Goldberg plot that becomes increasingly absurd, with lots of jokey but well-managed, high-speed acting.

The plot of Don’t Dress for Dinner does lend itself to a farcical production.  The play takes place in the country home of a married couple, each of whom has a secret lover on the side.  With the expectation that his wife Jacqueline will be away for the weekend, Bernard has invited his cherie Suzanne to be with him.  By way of covering up the tryst, he has also invited an old friend, Robert, to the house.  Since Robert happens to be Jacqueline’s paramour, she cancels her plans at the last minute in order to be with him.  Add to the mix, a professional cook named Suzette, who has been invited to cater the weekend and who gets mistaken for Suzanne, and you’ve got the makings for just the sort calculated silliness that is farce. 

The problem is, it just doesn’t work.  John Tillinger’s direction is lackluster, and the acting is all over the place.  There are at least four comic styles that constantly bump into one another, with only Ms. Kayden (as Suzette the cook) seeming to understand that she is in a farce. Adam James (as Bernard) and Ben Daniels (as Robert) are doing baggy pants slapstick routines, with a lot of flailing, arm waving, and klutzy footwork;  Jennifer Tilly (Suzanne) is doing burlesque; and Patricia Kalember (Jacqueline) seems to be in a Noel Coward drawing room comedy.  Seen in this light, they all do fine work; it’s just a shame they are not all performing in the same play at the same time.

Then there are the doors. 

Farce often makes use of multiple doors, through which the characters enter and exit at breakneck speed.  Doors are used for hiding, for barely avoiding collisions, and for making inappropriate dramatic entrances.  

Here there are two doors (three if you count the underutilized front entrance), and, while they are acknowledged, their potential for comic use is scrupulously avoided.  The other might-have-been-interesting room in the house is the unseen master bedroom at the top of the stairs. 

It is possible that Don’t Dress for Dinner may find its footing sometime in the future with a more creative team behind it.  It did play for six years in London, and someone might be able to find a way to shape it for a successful U.S. run.  But this ain’t  it.

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1 comment:

  1. The stage direction and structure of the play prevent the door action that you appear to crave in your review.