Veteran helmer John Tillinger brings it in with an A-list design team and a cast that knows how to negotiate the sublimely silly conventions of classic farce.
“Don’t Dress for Dinner,” the little bon bon that French playwright Marc Camoletti dashed off after “Boeing-Boeing,” ran for seven years in Blighty, where auds dearly love a naughty French sex farce featuring philandering husbands, saucy mistresses and lots of well-oiled doors. After working up this high-gloss version of Robin Hawdon’s crafty adaptation at Chicago’s Royal George Theater a few years ago, veteran helmer John Tillinger brings it in with an A-list design team and a cast that knows how to negotiate the sublimely silly conventions of classic farce.
John Lee Beatty scores the first laugh with his grandly scaled and deliciously pretentious set design of a fastidiously restored barn a few hours from Paris in the French countryside. Besides the converted dairy, hay loft, hen house and pig sty, there’s a winding staircase to the master suite and plenty of doors belowstairs for slipping in and out of bedrooms.
The plot pretty much follows the template for a workable Gallic farce. Having established a solid alibi with his best friend Robert (Ben Daniels), philandering husband Bernard (Adam James) thinks he has safely packed off wife Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember) to her mother’s for the weekend, so he can frolic with mistress Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly). To set the mood, he has engaged chef Suzette (Spencer Kayden) to cater a romantic champagne dinner.
Complications initially arise when Jacqueline discovers that Robert, her own secret lover, will be staying at the house that weekend, prompting her to cancel her visit to her mother. Seeing the problem, Bernard directs Robert to claim Suzanne as his own mistress when she arrives from Paris.
But, never having met Suzanne the mistress, Robert mistakenly latches onto Suzette the chef when she shows up at the door, and, after paying her the bribe she demands, presents her as his paramour. For different reasons, Bernard and Jacqueline are both taken aback by this awkward mixup, which becomes even more confusing when Suzanne shows up and is hastily directed to play the part of the cook.
“Once these basic mechanics are in place, the action (mostly) rises and (occasionally) falls on the cleverness of the plot twists and the adroitness of the cast in pulling them off.
For the most part, Tillinger goes for the standard routines to pile on the comic chaos: mistaken identities, double-entendres, soda-water spritzes, conversations conducted at cross-purposes, and scantily dressed people tiptoeing in and out of bedrooms in the middle of the night. The bed-hopping is best carried off by Jennifer Tilly, who is wonderfully vulgar as the shameless Suzanne.
But one truly inspired bit of lunacy is the manic tango — no broad parody, but a smartly executed comic turn — that Robert and Suzette dance after getting properly soused in the kitchen. Kayden makes a captivating clown with her droll “French” accent and haughty air of Parisian disdain. She’s a love match with Daniels, a classically trained British thesp (seen on this side of the pond in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”) whose panicked moves and look of desperation make a lovable patsy of Robert.
Making his Broadway debut, Adam James is perfectly fine, if a bit subdued, as Bernard. David Aron Damane gets his laughs as Suzette’s beefy husband, George. And Patricia Kalember deserves a medal for keeping a straight face as Jacqueline, the long-suffering wife who takes the perfect revenge for her husband’s shenanigans.
Don't Dress for Dinner
Jacqueline - Patricia Kalember
Robert - Ben Daniels
Suzette - Spencer Kayden
Suzanne - Jennifer Tilly
George - David Aron Damane