There’s thin, and then there’s “See You Next Tuesday,” a West End comedy that takes Chekhov’s famous image of “the breaking string” to snapping point and beyond. I never saw “The Dinner Game,” the hit 1999 French film adapted by Francis Veber from his stage success in Paris. But in its London preem following a separate run with the same star, Irish TV funnyman Ardal O’Hanlon (“Father Ted”), at Dublin’s Gate Theater, this Anglicized version by Ronald Harwood is amusing on occasion and alarmingly slight throughout.
Farce, of course, follows its own harrowing rules, and barely has the briefest of evenings begun — without the intermission, the play would barely eke out 70 minutes — before at least one character, the hapless wife Christine Brochant (Carol Royle), is acting as a voice of conscience. “I think it’s horrid and cruel,” she says of the game plan devised by her publisher-husband Pierre (Nigel Havers, a veteran of the mother of all Gallic stage exports, “Art”). Married a scant two years, Pierre is one of a group of friends whose idea of a piquant evening is to organize a dinner party in which guests vie with one another to bring along the dimmest companion, or “victim.”
With friends like these, who needs enemies? So it seems, but the narrative has one genuine ace in the hole — the dinner party in question never actually occurs. Instead, this particular dupe, Francois Pignon (O’Hanlon), arrives at Pierre’s apartment only to turn events upside-down at once, with a mixture of politesse, guilelessness and an unfailing honesty that, in farcical terms, is lethal. The sort of man who lobs inadvertent hand grenades one after the other (among the more significant: He mistakes Pierre’s wife for his mistress, Patsy Kensit’s nymphomaniacal — and shrilly acted — Marlene), Pignon is an accountant who sows as much confusion as possible in his host’s increasingly beleaguered path.
For all the open-faced appeal of O’Hanlon’s skilled perf, the story seems hardly to merit the scant time allotted it, especially since the moralizing keeps puncturing what ought to be the airiest of souffles. (That dish, presumably, wasn’t on the menu.)
The most sustainedly funny passages in the play belong to Geoffrey Hutchings’ Lucien Cheval, playing a tax inspector with a keen eye for walls from which Modigliani paintings have mysteriously disappeared. (Liz Ascroft’s bright, high-walled set is at no time more striking than when bereft of art.) As sharp with words as he is suspicious of mien, Cheval, clearly, doesn’t miss a trick — which in the world of “See You Next Tuesday” is to make him the ultimate stooge.
In an abrupt about-face from his concurrent Donmar revival of John Osborne’s “A Hotel in Amsterdam,” director Robin Lefevre animates the action without ever managing to justify the attempts at profundity on which the play is so insistent — “It’s not funny, it’s tragic,” says Pignon late on, lest we have dozed off.
Might there have been more at stake if Havers’ quintessentially English Pierre seemed more of an actual nemesis rather than just a dapper gent in too deep? Perhaps. And maybe anyone would have been better as Marlene than the husky-voiced Kensit, an English tabloid darling who appears costumed (the clothes, too, are by Ascroft) to resemble a psychedelic Eskimo.