Maybe there's some confusion about what's really going on at "Don't Dress for Dinner." It's really quite simple. Just listen to one character named Robert explain it to his lover, who is angry her husband Bernie is cheating on her:
"We can't blame Bernie for having a lover who was pretending to be my lover so you wouldn't know she was his lover, while all the time I was your lover pretending to be her lover so that he wouldn't know you had a lover. Especially when his real lover was all the time pretending to be — to be ..."
"Pretending to be what?" asks his lover.
"I've lost track of all the lovers," replies Robert.
You might, too, in the Broadway premiere of Marc Camoletti's farce, which is in the same zany vein as his "Boeing-Boeing" but much, much limper. It opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre under the direction of John Tillinger with its madcap forced and sparks missing.
Set in a 1960 French country home, the increasingly mangled plot centers on a married man (Adam James) who is planning a romantic tryst with his lover (Jennifer Tilly) while his wife (Patricia Kalember) is off visiting her mom.
His plans go awry — naturally — when his wife gets wind of the fact that his best friend (Ben Daniels) is also coming to act as cover for the tryst. But, unbeknownst to the husband, his wife is also having an affair with the best friend. Add an unsuspecting caterer (Spencer Kayden) to the mix, and craziness ensues. Or at least that's what supposed to happen.
"It's not so much a mess as a dirty great pile of farmyard poo-poo!" says the best friend about the whole affair. He might as well be talking about the affair on stage, too.
It's tired, warmed-over farce that involves seltzer spraying, imaginary insects, boob jokes, loads of alcohol, people jumping over sofas, and the cast running around in dressing gowns. It's all very predictable and really not funny.
"Don't Dress for Dinner," which is adapted by Robin Hawdon, opened in Paris in 1987, made its premiere in London in 1991 and now comes to New York thanks to the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Kayden, who plays the caterer-turned-guest-turned-lover-turned-niece, steals the show with her over-the-top French accent and deadpan response to having to increasingly handle more and more twists from this loony bunch.
"I should get an Oscar for this!" she says.
Steady on, girl.
There are some nifty bits, like when the two men remake her outfit so she goes from servant to glamorous guest in a few moves is wonderful, but they're few and far between. And William Ivey Long delivers with sumptuous costumes: bespoke striped suits, tuxes, a fur coat, French maid outfits, dinner gowns, and, yes, dressing gowns that reek of wealth and high thread counts.
But if you're in the mood for a European farce, a better one is "One Man, Two Guvnors," a play that seems to have swiped all the manic humor and good cheer from this one. If that sounds a bit like cheating on your wife, then how very appropriate.
Hidden identities, Freudian slips and splatting pratfalls are on the all-you-can-eat menu of the silly 1960s-style sex farce “Don’t Dress for Dinner.”
In foodie terms, this modestly amusing 1991 play by Marc Camoletti would never be mistaken for a gourmet fare. It’s nearer to Applebee’s than Per Se.
But there are a few good chuckles, an inspired sight gag involving a costume (let’s leave it at that) and a delicious comic turn by Spencer Kayden (Little Sally of “Urinetown”). It all combines to goose things in the right direction.
If you don’t find infidelity funny, “Dinner” isn’t for you.
It’s the name of the game as Camoletti revisits characters from his better work “Boeing-Boeing,” which won a Best Revival Tony in 2008.
The convoluted plot follows the laws of farce. Long story short: Bernard (Adam James, channeling Austin Powers), a horndog architect, is all set to do the tryst with his babelicious mistress, Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly), when his wife, Jacqueline (a droll Patricia Kalember), gums things up.
Bernard uses his pal, Robert (Ben Daniels), as an alibi, unaware his BFF is boffing Jacqueline. A French cook, Suzette (Kayden), becomes the key to an elaborate charade that keeps the antics spinning.
There are some dry patches, but veteran director John Tillinger keeps thing moving fairly lickety-split. One wishes he’d found a way to make more out of the country-house setting.
Kayden, meantime, gets maximum laughs from Suzette as she tangoes, topples and tipples her way through the role.
Each time Bernard or Robert impose upon Suze to keep up their charade, she obliges but first sticks out her paw for payment. It’s a fitting image for the actress who holds the show in her palm of her hand.
It’s pointless to even try to summarize “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” a sex farce more tangled than a plate of spaghetti. Actually, there isn’t so much a story as a pileup of contrived lies, mistaken identities, random coincidences and physical entanglements.
Yet despite all this frantic activity, this Roundabout show is a slog.
The 1985 play has a decent pedigree: It’s by French playwright Marc Camoletti, whose “Boeing-Boeing” had a successful run on Broadway four years ago.
That revival was stylish and fleet-footed. “Don’t Dress for Dinner” tries to tap-dance in concrete shoes. The play itself isn’t as good as “Boeing-Boeing,” and John Tillinger’s production fails to find a rhythm.
And rhythm is essential in a show keeping many crazy balls in the air.
You’ve got a married man (Adam James) with a “tarty” mistress (Jennifer Tilly) and a bachelor best friend (Ben Daniels, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”). The hoity-toity wife (the fine Patricia Kalember) isn’t above an illicit roll in the hay. A stern cook (Spencer Kayden) is passed off variously as a girlfriend, a niece, a model and an actress.
The only reason these schemes work is because everybody behaves idiotically and speaks in vague sentences that carry several meanings.
And oh, the jokes! A visitor is introduced with the warning that “she won’t be what she seems.”
“She’s a transvestite?” the wife asks.
“Don’t Dress for Dinner” belongs to the tradition of French “boulevard” theater, which is based on infidelity, deceit and slamming doors. To succeed, boulevard must be played with such physical exuberance and unabashed mugging that the audience doesn’t have the opportunity to ponder how ridiculous it all is.
Here, there’s plenty of time between laughs for the mind to wander: These people are kind of shady. John Lee Beatty’s French-country-style set is ugly. Comedy isn’t Daniels’ strong point. Will Tilly — whose line readings aren’t funny ha-ha but funny strange — fall out of her overloaded bra?
Happily, James and Kayden light things up.
The first has a great rubber-limbed agility — his happy footwork when his character thinks the coast is clear for nookie is a hoot.
Back on Broadway for the first time since playing Little Sally in “Urinetown,” Kayden is extra dry with a twist, and steals the evening.
You keep wishing she’d get more stage time . . . in another show.
Can I blame Mark Rylance?
For what, you are wondering. For “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” a revival of a wheezy French sex farce by Marc Camoletti that opened on Broadway on Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater.
You see, if it were not for the alchemical magic of Mr. Rylance’s Tony-winning performance in Mr. Camoletti’s “Boeing-Boeing,” revived to popular acclaim on Broadway and in the West End a couple of years ago, I doubt I would have had to endure the creaking mechanics of “Don’t Dress for Dinner.” Instead of feeling freshly whipped up from a classic recipe — as “Boeing-Boeing” did, against all odds — this Roundabout Theater Company production has the stale flavor of an old TV dinner defrosted and microwaved.
Set in a comfortable country home outside Paris in 1960, when mere naughtiness was still titillating, the plot turns on a weekend of philandering planned by Bernard (Adam James), a British expat who is just about ready to pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly to welcome his mistress, Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly), when things begin to go turbulently awry.
Bernard’s wife, Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember), was to be packed off for a visit to her mother. But when she discovers that Bernard’s friend Robert (Ben Daniels) has unexpectedly turned up — returning from Kuala Lumpur, as English businessmen in Paris in 1960 were presumably always doing — Jacqueline pretends her mother has the flu. She and Robert have been carrying on their own secret affair, and she is looking forward to a reunion.
There’s more of course. Since Suzanne’s imminent arrival must somehow be explained, Bernard presses Robert to pretend that she is his mistress — a ruse Robert is most reluctant to agree to, for fear of alienating Jacqueline’s affections. But play along he must, and all might still be well were it not for the untimely arrival of the cook sent by a catering agency, Suzette (Spencer Kayden), whom Robert mistakes for Suzanne, and who is baffled at the odd request to pretend to be his mistress. Ooh la la!
“Don’t Dress for Dinner” is arguably a better-constructed farce than “Boeing-Boeing,” but this show, directed by John Tillinger, lacks crucial elements that made the earlier revival, directed by Matthew Warchus, so popular: the particular genius of Mr. Rylance, whose clowning was gently infused with real pathos, as well as stylish designs and the “Mad Men”-era kitsch factor provided by the presence of sex-kitten stewardesses. (John Lee Beatty’s blandly upscale living-room set for “Don’t Dress for Dinner” doesn’t help squelch the play’s stodginess factor.)
Subtlety is not a requirement — or even an asset — when playing farce, and the cast of “Don’t Dress for Dinner” certainly makes no attempt to underplay. As the increasingly addled Bernard, in a permanent state of damage control, Mr. James leaps and scurries about the stage, arms gyrating in mad, semaphoric maneuvers that could be used to guide airplanes to their gates. Mr. Daniels, seen in the Roundabout’s revival of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” a few seasons back, contorts himself into various suggestive poses with impressive athleticism and exudes an air of mortal terror as he tries to keep up with Bernard’s convoluted machinations.
Ms. Kalember is comparatively restrained as Jacqueline, simmering with gentle outrage at the thought that her lover has had the audacity to bring another mistress to her home. As the voluptuous Suzanne, Ms. Tilly, gaudily and somewhat gauchely costumed (by William Ivey Long), brays and pouts in dismay when Bernard insists that since Suzette is pretending to be Robert’s mistress, Suzanne must in turn pretend to be the cook.
But the most surefire role is Ms. Kayden’s as the wily Suzette, who coolly demands a few more hundred francs every time she is asked to undertake some preposterous new role in the confused shenanigans. Employing a pinched, nasal French accent of stage stereotype, Mr. Kayden is very funny in her sniffing acceptance of the absurd behavior of her employers.
In one of the evening’s best bits of physical comedy the maid’s uniform Suzette has donned for dinner — it’s the only other outfit she brought — is instantly transformed by Robert and Bernard into a chic cocktail dress, inspiring Suzette to play the grand lady as she becomes increasingly looped on liquor.
The verbal wit in the English adaptation by Robin Hawdon is rather low. There’s a cheesy joke playing on the words “happiness” and “penis” for example. But most of the humor derives from the bawdy grappling among the various romantic partners and the slinky manner in which Suzette crisply outfoxes her betters. The farce lovers in the audience seemed to greet each new absurd convolution in the story with the desired guffaws, but for me the intensive labor involved rarely seemed to pay off in moments of inspired lunacy.
Allergies are mysterious things. They come from nowhere, and then sometimes they go. I’m not exactly sure when it developed, but I’ve come to realize I have a pretty serious allergy to farce. (Rare exceptions: Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” and this season’s delectable “One Man, Two Guvnors.”) Emerging from “Don’t Dress for Dinner” after the last clandestine smooch had been snatched and the last bedroom door slammed, I found myself itchy with irritation, checking my skin for hives.
If we really must have a resurgence of low farce on Broadway -- and, alas, it appears we must -- please let Spencer Kayden get cast as often as possible. This delicious comic actress, not seen much around here since her priceless Little Sally 11 years ago in "Urinetown," has a deadpan combination of daffiness and discipline that brings a merry dignity to the most idiotic routines.
We know this because there is almost nothing but them in "Don't Dress for Dinner," which has the good sense to have Kayden -- with her prim mouth, her black caterpillar eyebrows and her stylish specificity of a dancer -- in the ensemble of director John Tillinger's mug-fest at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre.
She plays Suzette, the hired French cook who finds herself tangled in the supposedly humorous mess of liaisons among four British people in a richly appointed country home near Paris. And I mention this relatively minor character because, really, it feels good to start with something upbeat.
The play is by Marc Camoletti, the prolific Frenchman whose 1962 bachelor-pad sex farce, "Boeing-Boeing," was mysteriously adored on Broadway in 2008. At least, that was directed by comic ace Matthew Warchus and included a dreamy hoot of a performance by the virtuosic Mark Rylance.
That wasn't my idea of a spree, either, but it seems like Shakespeare compared with its sequel. Bernard (Adam James) and wife Jacqueline (the admirably serene Patricia Kalember) are each secretly planning an extramarital fling. He has invited friend Robert (Ben Daniels) as a distraction, not knowing his buddy is having a thing with his wife.
Bernard is expecting a visit from his "actress-model" -- played with game, smeary voluptuousness by Jennifer Tilly. She is named Suzanne. Note the similarity to the name of the cook, as if you could miss it.
Tillinger, who used to be a specialist in the dry absurd wit of Joe Orton, subscribes here to the comic theory of hard-strain, in which jittery knees express boffo anxiety and sputtering consonants suggest the riot of a compromising position ahead. Every time Bernard mentions his "actress-model," he makes what appears to be the universal gesture for humongous breasts.
The first-rate designs -- set by John Lee Beatty, costumes by William Ivey Long -- are handsome. Before each act, we get to enjoy '60s pop songs in French, especially, in what we should have taken as a warning, "Hit the Road Jack."
"Don't Dress for Dinner," the little bon bon that French playwright Marc Camoletti dashed off after "Boeing-Boeing," ran for seven years in Blighty, where auds dearly love a naughty French sex farce featuring philandering husbands, saucy mistresses and lots of well-oiled doors. After working up this high-gloss version of Robin Hawdon's crafty adaptation at Chicago's Royal George Theater a few years ago, veteran helmer John Tillinger brings it in with an A-list design team and a cast that knows how to negotiate the sublimely silly conventions of classic farce.
John Lee Beatty scores the first laugh with his grandly scaled and deliciously pretentious set design of a fastidiously restored barn a few hours from Paris in the French countryside. Besides the converted dairy, hay loft, hen house and pig sty, there's a winding staircase to the master suite and plenty of doors belowstairs for slipping in and out of bedrooms.
The plot pretty much follows the template for a workable Gallic farce. Having established a solid alibi with his best friend Robert (Ben Daniels), philandering husband Bernard (Adam James) thinks he has safely packed off wife Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember) to her mother's for the weekend, so he can frolic with mistress Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly). To set the mood, he has engaged chef Suzette (Spencer Kayden) to cater a romantic champagne dinner.
Complications initially arise when Jacqueline discovers that Robert, her own secret lover, will be staying at the house that weekend, prompting her to cancel her visit to her mother. Seeing the problem, Bernard directs Robert to claim Suzanne as his own mistress when she arrives from Paris.
But, never having met Suzanne the mistress, Robert mistakenly latches onto Suzette the chef when she shows up at the door, and, after paying her the bribe she demands, presents her as his paramour. For different reasons, Bernard and Jacqueline are both taken aback by this awkward mixup, which becomes even more confusing when Suzanne shows up and is hastily directed to play the part of the cook.
Once these basic mechanics are in place, the action (mostly) rises and (occasionally) falls on the cleverness of the plot twists and the adroitness of the cast in pulling them off.
For the most part, Tillinger goes for the standard routines to pile on the comic chaos: mistaken identities, double-entendres, soda-water spritzes, conversations conducted at cross-purposes, and scantily dressed people tiptoeing in and out of bedrooms in the middle of the night. The bed-hopping is best carried off by Jennifer Tilly, who is wonderfully vulgar as the shameless Suzanne.
But one truly inspired bit of lunacy is the manic tango -- no broad parody, but a smartly executed comic turn -- that Robert and Suzette dance after getting properly soused in the kitchen. Kayden makes a captivating clown with her droll "French" accent and haughty air of Parisian disdain. She's a love match with Daniels, a classically trained British thesp (seen on this side of the pond in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses") whose panicked moves and look of desperation make a lovable patsy of Robert.
Making his Broadway debut, Adam James is perfectly fine, if a bit subdued, as Bernard. David Aron Damane gets his laughs as Suzette's beefy husband, George. And Patricia Kalember deserves a medal for keeping a straight face as Jacqueline, the long-suffering wife who takes the perfect revenge for her husband's shenanigans.