Farce is a personal thing. If it doesn’t appear to be working in the first five minutes, you can tell, it’s never going to work.
The forced nature of intentionally over-acting not only requires a lot from the actors, but also from the audience. There’s work required. Actors need to convince that the absurdity of their character’s behavior is what they would really do in a convoluted situation, while audiences have to overlook their own sense of logic and fully embrace the foolish state of affairs in order to enjoy the proceedings. It’s not easy. Farce is definitely a two-way affair.
In the French sex comedy Don’t Dress For Dinner now playing at Scottsdale Desert Stages Actor’s Cafe until September 19, no introductory time is wasted. Within the first couple of minutes, the audience is thrown into the middle of a marital deceit that you know will soon go disastrously wrong as the plot machinations of secret affairs breathlessly unfolds.
Over the years since it was first performed in Paris in 1987, the play has possessed different time frames. The 1991 London production was present time, the 2012 Broadway revival turned the clock back to 1960, while this new production at Desert Stages has the events taking place in the late 90’s. The plot doesn’t change, only the style of costumes.
Adapted from French into English by British playwright Robin Hawdon, Don’t Dress For Dinner takes place in the living room of a cozy country home, a converted farmhouse some miles outside of Paris. Explaining plot and its various twists and turns is always a disservice when it comes to farce, not to mention that the reader can often get lost in a detailed synopsis, but it’s basically this: The philandering middle-aged Bernard (Geoff Goorin) is to have a free weekend. His wife, Jacqueline (Deborah Weissman Ostreicher) is about to leave to visit her mother. This gives the adulterous husband the opportunity of sneaking his young mistress, Suzanne (Skylar Ryan) into the farmhouse for the weekend. Naturally, it all goes disastrously wrong when Jacqueline cancels plans and remains. What follows is a frantic mess involving Bernard’s friend Robert (Wade Moran), a Cordon Bleu cook who makes house-calls, Suzette (Ashley Jackson) and Suzette’s threatening, leather-jacketed husband, George (Jeff Viso).
The six-person cast attack their roles with the kind of full-on, over the top energy required of characters in a farce as they race around the set, mug, panic and outdo each other by telling lie after lie while everything around them picks up speed and spirals out of control. Eventually, no one’s quite sure where they are in the deceit or what lie they told last. It’s not the wordplay that’s funny – the wit of the script is minimal – it’s the actions and tangled plot developments that make you laugh; torturous for the characters but laugh-out-loud funny for the audience.
As co directed by Virginia Oliviera and Gary Zaro, there’s something of a three-way cultural divide in the play’s presentation. The setting, setup and characters are definitely French, the dialog is British – to be drunk is to be “pissed as a newt” and sex is referred to as “rodgering” – and it’s all delivered with an American accent. It doesn’t harm the flow of things – a bad theatrical French accent could ruin everything – but as presented, it would be somehow easier for stateside audiences to accept that an older Frenchman would have a young French mistress. Played with a purely American voice as though these were all yanks living overseas near Paris only makes the upper middle-aged Bernard and his friend Robert appear more lecherous when talking about younger women. It doesn’t make anything less funny but it certainly makes the men slightly more creepy. “We’re all broad-minded here,” states Bernard.
As for the female characters, with their attitudes and behavior, they’re the kind that could only come from the imagination of a man in service to a plot. The wife – who is also having an affair – is someone who could easily make a cheating husband’s life misery if he was ever caught, while the mistress is the dream girl of a guy with an-overactive fantasy; an attractive and shapely young woman with the morals of an alley cat who would not only go for an older man without concern for his marital status but would also go with his best friend after a first meeting under the same roof.
Towards the last half hour, the play often looks as if it’s in danger of losing steam – it feels longer than it should – but the cast bring it back for the conclusion. No lessons are learned, and there’s no redemption for the philanderers, but as you would expect, a marital catastrophe is averted and the fantasy mistress still gets to sleep with someone.
Interestingly, the most fun female character is the one not having an affair. As Suzette, Ashley Jackson’s natural charm and unforced comedic quality makes her Cordon Bleu caterer all the funnier as she willingly involves herself in the men’s deceit for a fee. With a smile that lights her face, pretending to be a mistress for two hundred francs – no Euros in the nineties – and a further two to pretend she’s really the niece appears to be as amusing to Suzette as it is for the audience to watch her. In addition to the money, Ashley steals every moment she’s on. “You don’t look forty-five,” she tells Robert. “At least, fifty.” Suzette may be a supporting role but Ashley grounds the fast-paced hokum. She makes it seem like it’s really her show.
Pictures courtesy of Heather Butcher
For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre website.