DON’T EVEN BOTHER
Broadway producers often hope lightning will strike twice as they mount shows very similar to past successes. We have recently seen the creative team of Hairspray unsuccessfully try to replicate that triumph with the flop Cry Baby. The folks who brought you a competent Lombardi are now serving us a mediocre Magic/Bird. To complete its season, Roundabout Theatre Company is trying to replicate the stylish 2008 Tony-winning Broadway production of Marc Camelotti’s mediocre sex farce Boeing Boeing with their current production of Camoletti’s even lesser sex farce Don’t Dress For Dinner. Not only is lightening not going to strike twice with Don’t Dress For Dinner, but the only thunder you might hear will be audiences pounding on the box office demanding their money back.
Don’t Dress For Dinner is a banal sex farce, the kind that gives dinner theatre a bad name. Unsympathetic characters, titillating physical bits, and hackneyed double entendres fill the evening, and exhaust an intelligent audience’s patience. The play’s shenanigans are as tired as tropes can be. Adulterous Bernard has planned to spend a secret sexy weekend with Suzanne, his mistress, while Jacqueline, his wife, is off taking care of her sick mother. When Jacqueline finds out that her lover and husband’s best friend, Robert, will be visiting for the weekend, she cancels the visit to her sick mother for her own secret sexy weekend with Robert. Add a mercenary cook and her hot-headed husband, and mayhem should ensue, right? I love a good farce; done right, Feydeau is as effervescent as a chilled glass of Dom Pérignon. John Tillinger’s production of Don’t Dress For Dinner is a flat box of Cold Duck.
The actors must shoulder some of the blame. Adam James, as the philandering husband, spends most of the play frenetically hopping around the stage like Cary Grant played by a horny, petulant schoolboy. Patricia Kalember, as wife Jacqueline, is pretty but has little stage presence and even less comic timing; she may just be the most boring leading lady working on Broadway today. Tony-nominated Spencer Kayden gives it her community theatre best, putting on a tiresome French accent as she overacts her way through the role of the money-grabbing cook Suzette. Jennifer Tilly, the “star” of the show based on the entrance applause, is getting a little long in the tooth to be selling the Betty Boop shtick that put her on the map a generation ago. Tilly still has a very sexy presence, but she never rises above acting choices you’d find in summer stock. Only Ben Daniels, as best friend and wife’s lover Robert, manages to come close to a solid farce performance. He is an inventive comic actor with an expressive face, which he uses to mug at the drop of a hat. When all the leading performances are off, blame should be squarely placed elsewhere.
If John Tillinger didn’t know how to make the play work, he should have turned down the assignment. The production has no balance or sense of comic joy. The comedy shtick rarely feels organic. Standard bits with a seltzer bottle fall hopelessly flat. I was looking forward to fast paced staging, slamming doors, and characters’ reputations being saved – whew! – just in the nick of time. Instead I felt like I was sitting through a soon-to-be cancelled sit-com. Actors shout lines revealing secret plot points that could logistically be overheard by the other actors. I couldn’t decide if these were some of the stupidest characters ever written or if the actors were just poorly directed. The greatest comic sin is that there’s very little humanity or truth to hold onto in Tillinger’s production of Don’t Dress For Dinner.
The design is equally disappointing. John Lee Beatty’s refurbished French farmhouse feels oddly unfinished. Dusty wood veneers and generic offstage blue backdrops make the set design look cheap. A prominent porcelain rooster figurine tells us we should not expect any subtleties. Sometimes William Ivy Long’s costumes are spot on and establish the period, but often they just draw attention to themselves. Jacqueline’s dinner dress with the matching shoes is particularly off-putting, as it demands attention that the actor and performance do not merit. Long does offer one of the plays only inspired comic bits where James and Daniels redesign Kayden’s French cook’s outfit and transform her into a stylist woman right before our eyes. If only the rest of the evening had been filled with such sexy, brilliant surprises.
John Tillinger’s production of Don’t Dress For Dinner feels so thrown together that I left the theatre angry that my base instincts had been pandered to for 2 ½ hours. Instead of relying on the templates of past Broadway successes, Roundabout would be better served to look for fresh new forms. Betting on lightning striking twice is hardly worth the gamble.
photos by Joan Marcus
Don’t Dress For Dinner
on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre
scheduled to end on June 17, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Don-t-Dress-for-Dinner.aspx