Imagine that a friend invites you for a French dinner to be topped off by a souffle. The dinner itself turns out to be not very French and, after an awkward pause between main course and dessert, what emerges from the kitchen is an English trifle, soggy portions of which are clearly the fallen souffle, deftly camouflaged in whipped cream, jam and whatever other sweet bits were lying about.
Mind you, I like trifle, but it seems a letdown if you're expecting a souffle. I'm afraid this is what the National Actors Theater's production of Feydeau's "A Little Hotel on the Side" is like. You want to commend Tony Randall's fledgling group for tackling farce, the most demanding of theatrical forms, but only a few of the cast meet the play on its own terms.
The farces of Georges Feydeau - the Neil Simon of Belle Epoque Paris - have a rigorous logic. In these ostensibly silly plays the slightest mishap, the most tentative moral misstep can overturn the placid order that bourgeois life is rigidly committed to preserving. These plays are not just a series of absurd events. Their dramatic tension - and lingering theatrical vitality - hinge on the sense of danger that must lurk behind every decision, every slamming door.
There's paltry little tension in this production, which is a hodgepodge of styles and accents. (The text also seems to have been badly cut. There are never loose ends in Feydeau - if a woman loses her grandiose hat in a shabby hotel, someone must find it. Here no one does.)
The one consummate farceur is Paxton Whitehead, as a man who stutters when it rains. There is also splendid work by Maryann Plunkett and Madeleine Potter. They - and Lynn Redgrave - offer what little Gallic flair the evening has, apart from its bubbly sets and costumes.
Redgrave has great splenetic energy as a towering harpy. Randall, who plays her errant husband, adapts the role to his own familiar style rather than vice-versa, getting many of his laughs by playing straight to the audience.
Rob Lowe, not unacquainted with farce, has been cast as a virginal student. The heart of his interpretation seems to be a perpetually mindless grin, which seems ill suited to both the scholarly life and virginity. Well, maybe he wasn't supposed to act. Maybe working at Broadway scale is just part of his community service.
Farce is fast - it is a game played at the speed of light in which the ploy's the thing, not the play. Incident is more important than character, and such incidents are infinitely calculated to reveal the banana-skin of tragedy.
In the matter of French farce - which is like an English sex comedy but with sex, and is now classy enough to be played at the Comedie Francaise - the English-speaking theater got its real baptism from Peter Glenville's staging of "Hotel Paradiso" in the mid-'50s, starring Alec Guinness in London and Bert Lahr in New York.
This adaptation, by Glenville himself, of "L'Hotel du Libre Echange" by Georges Feydeau, the genre's classic master), helped to finally give the playwright a belated Anglo-American reputation as a farceur of rare genius.
What more natural then that Tony Randall, in the first season of his new National Actors Theater, should here include a Feydeau in his repertory, or that he should choose "Hotel Paradiso," but here in John ("Rumpole") Mortimer's new and more racily idiomatic adaptation - first seen with Britain's National Theater and retitled "A Little Hotel on the Side."
It officially opened at the Belasco Theater yesterday and it is worth two cheers, even if the ever-demanding Michelin Guide would scarcely award the hotel one star.
Tom Moore's staging doesn't lack speed (the slow start is part of the play and characteristic of the genre), but it does require more panache and style. It has the velocity of cartoons rather than the finesse of championship tennis, although both David Jenkins' setting - in an appropriately vague art nouveau mode - and Patricia Zipprodt's outrageously chic costumes do the play proud.
The story doesn't matter - suffice it that Pinglet (Randall himself) is desperately trying to seduce Marcelle (Maryann Plunkett), the wife of his best friend Paillardin (Bruce Katzman), and escape, albeit briefly, from his terminally termagant wife, Angelique (Lynn Redgrave).
A planned assignation at the saucily named Hotel Good Night, goes disastrously awry, partly through the inadvertent intrusion of Pinglet's friend from the provinces, Mathieu (Paxton Whitehead), and his giggling gaggle of four daughters. Confounding the confusion are Paillardin's nephew, a philosophy student, Maxime (Rob Lowe) and Pinglet's maid, Victoire (Madeleine Potter), intent on teaching Maxime what Descartes left out.
There is a certain heavy-handedness to much of the playing - what should be light-fingeredly obvious, for subtlety was scarcely one of Feydeau's virtues, seems to go too far, and to be hammered home with clenched fist and fixed grimace.
Some of the fault rests with a miscast Randall, a most accomplished comedian, who misses however the hopeless vulnerability of Pinglet, a man essentially a dupe of fate and child of fortune rather than the roguish rogue presented here. He needs more evident ineptitude, more readily empathizible pain.
Whitehead (although seeming to appear in a different play - far more Anglo-Saxon than Gallic) has fun as the inopportune friend from Dieppe (who only stammers when it rains), and a totally unrecognizable Redgrave, with a gravelly voice, a gawky gait and a face only kindness could call harridan, hacks a commanding figure as Pinglet's awesome wife.
Of the rest of the huge cast, Katzman (pinch-hitting for an injured George N. Martin) makes perhaps understandably little of the cold-blooded Paillardin, while Lowe, charmingly adequate enough in all conscience, proves wasted as the retiring Maxime. However Potter is pouter-pert and perfect as Victoire, and, best of all, Plunkett provides a disarmingly distressed picture of a Parisian matron at the fraying end of her sexual tether.
After the company's somber, sober start with Miller's "The Crucible," this classic Feydeau romp provides a very suitable change of pace for ensemble and audience alike.
For a farce to succeed onstage, it need not offer the audience redeeming social value, literary merit, great acting, esthetic perfection or brilliant wit. A farce need be only one thing: funny.
By that simple criterion, the National Actors Theater staging of "A Little Hotel on the Side" can be called a complete flop, and it doesn't fare better by any other criteria, either.
Laughter does emanate from pockets of the Belasco Theater, but it is at most tangentially related to the ingenious roundelay of disastrously ill-fated trysts that Georges Feydeau wrote with Maurice Desvallieres in 1894 (and which is performed here in a mangled version of John Mortimer's delightful 1984 translation). Much of the audience's giggling is a response to the shameless mugging of Tony Randall, who, in the role of Pinglet, a Parisian building contractor, revives the eye-bulging hysteria and hyperventilating tantrums of Felix Unger, beloved hero of a thousand late-night television reruns.
"The Odd Couple" is a classic in its own right -- and the frenetic Mr. Randall, thickly painted with ruddy makeup, does seem almost cryogenically frozen in time since its inception -- but why insert little pieces of Felix into "A Little Hotel"? Neil Simon gets as raw a deal as Feydeau does, and Mr. Randall, by ungenerously refusing to sacrifice so much as one dropped jaw from his television persona for the greater good of the show at hand, makes a mockery of his own company's selfless goal of becoming "a classical repertory theater."
The fear that the National Actors Theater would rather be winter's answer to celebrity-laden summer stock is further heightened by Rob Lowe's appearance in the role of Maxime, a bespectacled student who, like most of Feydeau's other characters, is caught with his knickers down in the dubious hotel of the play's title. Was Mr. Lowe cast to fulfill the company's stated mission of presenting "the world's greatest actors in civilization's greatest plays" or because the circumstances of his role dovetail with the Atlanta hotel-room scandal that brought him a brush with the law and tabloid headlines a few years ago? You be the judge. Suffice it to say here that Mr. Lowe goes about his assignment with all the effervescence of a miscreant fulfilling a court-ordered sentence of community service.
As with "The Crucible," this company's previous offering, one's heart goes out in "A Little Hotel on the Side" to the unfamous actors who work hard to legitimize the floundering, undisciplined stars at center stage but find themselves miscast, misdirected or both. Maryann Plunkett, whose fine Elizabeth Proctor was the saving grace of the Arthur Miller play, cannot find the right exaggerated tone for the role of a reluctantly philandering wife, and, like Madeleine Potter, who sinks just as fast in the part of the randy maid pursuing Mr. Lowe, she emits not an iota of erotic heat. (The only sexual gag conveyed passionately in this production has nothing to do with men and women, but is a bit in which Mr. Randall's posterior is penetrated by an errant corkscrew.) Cameos that should be polished comic gems -- a voyeuristic hotel manager (Patrick Tull), a libidinous hotel porter (Alec Mapa), a police inspector (John Fiedler), a wayward schoolteacher (Zane Lasky) -- are so lame that one wonders if the actors have been told that the Belasco's bill has switched from Puritan Salem.
Faring marginally better are Lynn Redgrave, as Mr. Randall's battle-ax of a wife, and Paxton Whitehead, as a country gentleman visiting Paris with four daughters who, as winningly costumed by Patricia Zipprodt, seem to have stepped out of Ludwig Bemelmans's "Madeline." Another Zipprodt design abets Miss Redgrave, who turns up in Act III with crushed millinery plumage, a soiled and torn black-and-mustard gown, and a black eye that leave her looking like Marie Dressler exhumed from a watery grave. The perpetually befuddled Mr. Whitehead, an experienced hand from such farces as "Run for Your Wife" and "Noises Off," makes the most of a typically nasty running Feydeau gag, a painful stutter that proves to be a crucial cog in the plot.
The play's director, Tom Moore, is also experienced at farce -- indeed, he has directed this play before -- but you would never know it from his work here. No unity of acting style is attempted that might set up the proper bourgeois French milieu that must be firmly in place if the characters' pratfalls from propriety into lecherous disrepute are to seem comic later on. When the plot's mistaken identities and inopportune coincidences, not to mention a platoon of Keystone gendarmes, all kick in during Act II, Mr. Moore's clumsy, confusingly lighted slamming-door choreography is more furious than funny, and the attempts to juice it up with canned music suitable for a television sitcom are embarrassing. With staging and acting this mechanical, why not go all the way and throw in a laugh track as well?
Of course, farce is itself a machine, heartless and relentless, and that is precisely why it becomes an instrument for torture instead of laughter, like an unattended merry-go-round, when left to run amok. It figures that nothing, not even Mr. Randall, receives as big a hand in "A Little Hotel on the Side" as the two turntables that move the prefab belle epoque scenery. At this National Actors Theater production, the audience learns all too quickly that only the gears beneath the actors can be trusted to give Feydeau's clockwork antics a precise spin.