Don't Dress for Dinner: Theater Review

Joan Marcus, 2012
Spencer Kayden and Ben Daniels
The cook steals the show in this mildly entertaining but over-extended sex farce.

A long-running hit in London in the 1990s but unseen on Broadway until now, French playwright Marc Camoletti's infidelity comedy is a follow-up to "Boeing-Boeing," which was a Tony Award winner in its 2008 revival.

NEW YORK – The accepted wisdom for decades was that British theatergoers love to titter their way through sex farces while Broadway audiences tend to resist, as illustrated by the disastrous 1965 New York run of French playwright Marc Camoletti’s Euro-smash Boeing-Boeing. But the success here of that play’s inspired 2008 revival was an exception to the rule, paving the way for Roundabout Theatre Company to stage Camoletti’s sequel of sorts, Don’t Dress for Dinner. John Tillinger’s tidily upholstered production assembles a likeable cast with proficient physical-comedy skills, but the overlong play’s pileup of sticky misunderstandings becomes repetitive.

Despite a 1991 London production of Robin Hawdon’s English adaptation that ran for six years, the closest it came to New York was in 1993 at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse. Tillinger directed it with some success in Chicago in 2008, and has recruited two of that production’s cast members, Patricia Kalember and Spencer Kayden, to reprise their roles here.

While the recent Boeing-Boeing benefited from its clever, stylized staging, from the brilliant comedic instincts of director Matthew Warchus, and above all, from a ridiculously talented farceur in Mark Rylance, Don’t Dress is too old-fashioned to achieve the same heightened lunacy. It’s affable entertainment with many funny moments, but not enough to disguise the mechanical structure and whiff of moldiness of its infidelity-interruptus plot.

The two men in the middle of the messy entanglements, Bernard (Adam James) and Robert (Ben Daniels), share their names with the central figures of Boeing-Boeing, though their histories don’t quite intersect, making this more a follow-up than a sequel.

It’s 1960 and Bernard, no longer a bachelor playboy, is married and living in a converted farmhouse outside Paris (lavishly rendered in rustic elegance by designer John Lee Beatty). With his wife Jacqueline (Kalember) off to visit her mother, Bernard is salivating over a weekend romp with his mistress Suzanne, a voluptuous model inhabited by carnal kewpie doll Jennifer Tilly. Also expected for the weekend is old pal Robert. Unbeknownst to Bernard, he is having an affair with Jacqueline, who swiftly cancels on mother when she gets wind of her paramour’s arrival.

Prime source of the play’s accelerating confusion is Suzette (Kayden), a Cordon Bleu chef hired by Bernard for the evening. Given their similar names, Robert initially assumes she is Bernard’s mistress and passes her off as his date to cover for his friend. By the time he wises up, it’s too late to correct the mistake without exposing either his own hanky-panky or his buddy’s. Unfazed by the eccentricities of her clients, Suzette is happy to play along and pose as Robert’s girlfriend, niece or whatever, extorting additional payments from both men for each fresh layer of deception.

More than the vortex of duplicity, thwarted sexual shenanigans and raging suspicions, it’s the wiliness of Suzette that gets the biggest laughs as the servant fleeces her foolish employers. Making the most of her rich opportunities, the gifted Kayden is a sober Plain Jane one minute and a rubber-limbed, Cointreau-soaked vamp the next, joining Robert in a killer tango. With help from costumer William Ivey Long, her instant transformation from uniformed maid to mistress in a slinky LBD is easily the production’s most hilarious sight gag.

The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, if not the kind of tight-knit, nutty ensemble that it takes to really make a farce catch fire. Arriving in a bizarrely funny traveling ensemble of voluminous fur with a giant powder puff fastened to her head, Tilly’s croaky-voiced sex kitten is nothing we haven’t seen from her before, but she’s adorably undignified. British actor Daniels (last seen on this stage opposite Laura Linney in Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is all befuddlement and double-takes, while the more animated James veers between flustered panic and debonair aplomb. With her chilly composure giving way to mounting fury, the lovely Kalember plays well off the two men sharing Jacqueline.

Tillinger guides the action along at a steady trot, but the material loses steam in the second act, sputtering toward a laborious denouement. Instead of the chaos hinging on increasingly elaborate contretemps, it replays variations on the same theme to diminishing returns. There are laughs, for sure, but compared to the truly inventive farce of One Man, Two Guvnors, playing a couple of blocks away, there’s also a hint of fatigue.

Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through June 17)

Cast: Ben Daniels, Adam James, Patricia Kalember, Jennifer Tilly, Spencer Kayden, David Aron Damane

Playwright: Marc Camoletti, adapted by Robin Hawdon

Director: John Tillinger

Set designer: John Lee Beatty

Costume designer: William Ivey Long

Lighting designer: Ken Billington

Sound designer: David Van Tieghem

Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company