Jean-Marie Besset’s “What You Get and What You Expect” is aptly titled. For all its clever invention and brittle humor, this comedy about sexual politics in the French bureaucracy leads one to expect something more than what it delivers. A breezy, 90-minute play, it has been given a sterling American premiere under Christopher Ashley’s direction, and it never fails to engage the attention. Yet it leaves one hungry for a fuller, more satisfying and more nuanced evening in the theater.
Klara Zieglerova’s remarkable set design certainly makes a case for treating Besset’s characters as mere pawns on an absurdist’s chessboard. As the play opens, architects Phillipe Derrien (Stephen Caffrey) and Robert Lebret (Peter Jacobson) are waiting in one of those enormous, classically appointed antechambers to the offices of some minister of high culture, who remains unseen behind huge Empire-style doors. A guard (Adam Greer) stands out front, his uniform worthy of Trump Tower.
Derrien and Lebret are competitors for a commission to build a monument on the moon — to what, we never learn. Lebret has been sleeping with the undersecretary, Louise Erkanter (Pamela Payton-Wright), but Derrien’s old high school buddy, Pericles Feyder (T. Scott Cunningham), is on the jury. They each have their shot.
As Besset makes readily apparent, Lebret represents expediency and survival, while Derrien clings to the supposition that talent is its own reward. No wonder his wife Nathalie (Kathryn Meisle) thinks he could use a little help in the career department.
Enter a playwright’s most useful tool, the all-purpose bisexual, Neil Abbot (Daniel Gerroll), who is open to any relationship as long as it conveniently and rapidly propels the plot. Abbot may or may not have been Feyder’s lover sometime in the past. They are certainly roommates now, and Abbot’s apartment is as good as any to bed Nathalie. It’s also a convenient place for Feyder to sexually proposition Derrien.
Besset makes his points too efficiently, and the witty banter can’t disguise the fact that these characters are merely marking time until the playwright pushes them into his next telling situation.
Since Jacobson, Payton-Wright and Gerroll essay the cynics, they get all the good lines, which they deliver with extraordinary aplomb. Caffrey, Meisle and Cunningham have the more difficult task of portraying human beings, and they seem a little alien on this quick, fantastical trip to the moon.