“Private Fittings,” based on Georges Feydeau’s “Tailleur pour dames,” features a series of firsts. It’s the first full-length play Feydeau wrote, the inaugural presentation of La Jolla’s Sheila & Hughes Potiker Theater and the world premiere of a French-to-English translation by Tony-winning “Hairspray” co-librettist Mark O’Donnell. For the most part, it’s a first-rate example of mistaken-identity farce.
Moved up from 1886 France to present-day San Diego and acted to the hysterical hilt, Des McAnuff directs with such choreographic stylization that the show seems much like a musical without songs.
Feydeau reportedly spent his evenings at Maxim’s, a popular Parisian cafe, and wrote about the cheating spouses and scheming lovers he observed there. He shuffles his characters like chess pieces and McAnuff, along with movement coach Charlie Oates and choreographer Kelly Devine, treats their trysts as a lively game, resisting any misguided attempt to dig for subtext or justify absurd behavior with motivation. The production’s determined slamming-door silliness is part of its appeal, along with actors who race, leap and dash duplicitously around the stage.
The production’s flavor is trumpeted cheerfully with the appearance of Eric (Kyle Fabel), a “spiritual healing therapist” who has spent the night away from home waiting for his mistress, Suzanne (Jessica Boevers). Fabel, an energetic and capable clown, is the show’s centerpiece and its funniest element.
In a laughably ludicrous sequence, this “swami charlatan” explains to wife Yvonne (Stana Katic) why he stayed out all night, claiming he had to nurse dying friend Drew (Chris Hoch). Drew then turns up, strong as an ox, doing pushups and lifting Eric in the air, and Eric’s desperate attempts to cue him into acting mortally ill fall on deaf ears.
O’Donnell’s madcap eccentrics include surfer dude Steve (Eric Wippo), the therapist’s inept personal assistant, and Harriet (Joan van Ark), Eric’s domineering mother-in-law, a bestselling author who advocates female assertiveness while silencing and controlling her daughter at every turn. Van Ark, dramatically dressed by Paul Tazewell in white sunglasses, white suit and shoes, has established a reputation for portraying vulnerable characters, so her interpretation of a vitriolic, ballsy bitch is particularly refreshing.
O’Donnell has a surefire flair for farcical mechanics. All of his characters contribute to the enjoyable mayhem, but some are stronger than others. Chris Kipiniak adds a suggestion of danger as Conan, ex-Navy seal and husband of Eric’s mistress. Conan announces a recurrent urge to kill people with menacing understatement, and though this homicidal hint ultimately comes to nothing, it does inject some excitement.
Boevers is allowed to explode, zip around on roller skates and scream behind closed doors. Of all the participants, she’s the one who remains most human, no matter how frenzied her actions.
Michael Friedman’s original music has a rollicking rhythmic feel that enhances the playful mood. Two extended scene changes, cleverly conceived by McAnuff, are more than simple transitions — cast members sing, skate and move furniture, and these interludes have the kick of production numbers.
The actors maintain such a relentless pace at times that important comic lines are obliterated. Luckily, there are so many of them that the occasional blurring of a bon mot isn’t felt as a deprivation. O’Donnell’s dialogue about adultery is also pertinent in any era, such as Eric’s remark, “Unseen is not the same as innocent,” and Conan’s comment, “I know, from my own behavior, how difficult men can be.”
Tailormade for laughs, O’Donnell’s hyperkinetic adaptation should find a future in regional outlets. It’s a fine fit for this new theater, and an audience-friendly way to launch the opening season.