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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
DON’T DRESS FOR DINNER
at American Airlines Theatre

MIX-UP IN PARIS
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Spencer Kayden, Ben Daniels and Patricia Kalember/ Joan Marcus

Don’t let the coy wink-wink title of this resurrected 1960s farce fool you. On this strait-laced stage full of wannabe swingers, you are indeed supposed to dress the part – so much so that one of the few truly funny bits of stage business involves the two leading men transforming a maid’s uniform into a sexy cocktail shift. Unfortunately, not much else is sexy, daring or comic about this longwinded letdown, adapted by Robin Hawdon from the original by Marc Camoletti (who also wrote Boeing, Boeing).

The play opens in a sedate country house outside Paris, circa 1960. Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember) is about to set off on a visit to her mother, unwittingly leaving her husband Bernard (Adam James) free to have a few days of fun with his mistress Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly). But when Jacqueline gets a phone call from her husband’s friend Robert (Ben Daniels), a businessman just back from a trip to Kuala Lumpur, she tells her husband that her mother has the flu and she’ll be staying at home after all.

Because, you see, Robert and Jacqueline are secretly lovers as well. This of course leaves Bernard desperately scrambling to find explanations for all the houseguests. He begs Robert to claim that Suzanne is his (Robert’s) mistress, which the cuckolder is obviously unhappy about doing. To complicate things still further, when Suzette, the cook Bernard has hired (Spencer Kayden), shows up, Robert assumes that she is Suzanne, so she ends up pretending to be Robert’s mistress while the glammed-up real Suzanne, when she at last arrives, is relegated to the role of cook. And so the romantic weekend begins.

To give credit where it’s due, the various machinations and ruses of this French farce may be creaky, but they do seem to work if you bother to track them through. The problem, which neither director John Tilinger nor the actors themselves seem able to resolve, is that they soon become as tedious to watch as they are ponderous to recount. What’s more, the characters barely even rise to the level of types, despite the actors’ best efforts.

James is full of nervous energy as his character concocts ever more ingenious (but alas, not entertaining) schemes to extricate himself from the increasing complexity of his derailed dinner, while Daniels plays the sidekick as stodgier, though no less daunted by their dilemma. Kalember brings a certain regality to her part, which helps explain the men’s unwillingness to cross her, but Tilly’s character is just baffling – you can’t understand why this bimbo wants anything to do with boring, suburban Bernard or why she’s the only character with an American accent.

The real standout is Kayden as the sparrow-like French cook. Suzette is willing to play an ever-changing role in this household drama – as long as she gets a few hundred extra francs each time she agrees. But as she gets tipsier, it’s not clear whether she’s going to be able to keep all the stories straight – especially when her jealous husband shows up.

Ultimately, even if the show were as fresh as a daisy when it first ran (and one suspects that even then it would have seemed a bit shopworn), today, after half a century of sitcom, it seems painfully old-hat and predictable. Don’t Dress for Dinner has every stereotypical prop of farce you can imagine – a fur coat, a maid’s uniform, a telltale note – but little by way of froth or fun, let alone relevance. As my theater companion said at intermission, “This must have been the kind of thing that got the Angry Young Men so angry.”

 


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