Director David Schweizer’s work is now on display at two major area theaters, with “He Hunts” at the Geffen and David Hare’s “The Blue Room” at Pasadena Playhouse through this weekend. Together, they provide a good sense of this Los Angeles-based stage artist’s highly stylized approach, and also a primer on how his self-conscious theatricality can sometimes work and sometimes not. In “Blue Room,” it doesn’t work. But here, applied to a play that really is a mechanical entity, with characters one should never take too seriously, it does work, even if the production is genuinely funny only when the genuinely funny Carol Kane is onstage. “He Hunts” may not always be funny, but it’s always fun to watch.
Before Kane’s Madame Latour enters in the second scene, French farceur Georges Feydeau has already introduced his usual brand of comical plotting, familiar to us because pretty much every sitcom has employed it at one time or another (whenever the cast of, say, “Frasier,” ends up at a cabin in the woods, or a hotel room in a foreign city, and shenanigans based on secrets and misunderstandings begin — think Feydeau).
For a long time now, bachelor Moricet (Stephen Nichols) has been attempting to seduce Leontine (Valarie Pettiford), wife of his best friend, Duchotel (Maxwell Caulfield). Although she enjoys the flirtation, Leontine won’t go further, since she’s convinced her Duchotel is completely faithful. She’s naive, of course, to think that his frequent hunting trips are really that, because he’s been bedding the wife of his supposed hunting buddy Cassecul (V.J. Foster).
Details, though, aren’t that important here. What is important is that they all end up at the same apartment house in the second scene, first trying to tryst, then trying not to be found, then trying to cover it all up.
Kane plays the “concierge” of said house, and she steals the show. Dressed in a big poofy blue dress, able to make the audience giggle just by wobbling across the stage in mild tipsiness, Kane easily captures the absurdities of this once-respectable woman who gave it all up for a doomed affair with a lion tamer.
The other performers can’t really compare, but they don’t need to — their bland characters wouldn’t really let them even if they emanated the same natural comic gifts. All of them come off decently at least, with the actors in smaller roles — Cathy Lind Hayes as a dour servant and Alan Mandell as an opportunistic police commissioner — making stronger impressions.
Schweizer has choreographed their antics so that everything is very shiny, and the most choreographed of all is Daniel Kucan as Duchotel’s nephew, who also has a sexual engagement at Latour’s building. Kucan moves as if he were a marionette, in broad poses, and his second-scene entrance is something quite close to a dance. Farce involves controlled chaos, and this production can be a bit heavy on the control and light on the genuinely chaotic, which once again means it’s less humorous but still compelling.
For the record, the original French title of this work is “Monsieur Chasse!” Phillip Littell does a workmanlike job with translating Feydeau’s French colloquialisms. It’s actually among the toughest of translation challenges: Since the piece is set among the ultra-modish elite of late-19th century Paris, one wants idiomatic expressions that are up-to-date and yet sound classical. Littell fills many scenes with clunkers like “Yessiree Bob” and “She’s a pip,” but once in a while, he nails a line with graceful bawdiness, like Moricet’s aside to the audience, “It’s just like being a dentist: Never let the patient see the drill.”
The design work is not just more consistent, it’s fabulous. Chris Barreca (set), David Zinn (costumes) and Anne Militello (lighting) are the true stars of this show, their work amazingly detailed: the silver-padded proscenium, an oh-so-burgundy interior, the sheer curtain through which we view the scene changes and the light-beige, drape-heavy apartment for the middle portion of the play.
Pettiford gets to wear two of the most gorgeous stage dresses ever, while Foster isn’t so much clothed as blanketed in an over-the-top plaid-on-plaid ensemble. The pants that play a role in the paint-by-numbers plot are wonderfully silly, and the climax of the show arrives with Kane and a yacht-sized hat. Militello’s lighting ensures that all of this is a very pretty picture indeed and, toward the end of scenes, reaches for an otherworldly glow.