Nothing about the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's production of Don't Dress for Dinner makes the slightest bit of sense. Including my liking it as much as I did.
As much as I respect the skill required in producing them effectively, I've never been a big fan of farcical comedies, and Don't Dress for Dinner's script really tested my tolerance. Originally a French piece by Marc Camoletti, then adapted for the London stage by Robin Hawdon, the play opens with a married couple (Tom Walljasper and Alisha Seaton) planning separate romantic encounters with their respective lovers, and closes after all manner of intentional ruses, unintentional embarrassments, and mistaken-identity high jinks.
Par for the course, but the blueprint for Don't Dress for Dinner feels unusually uninspired. It's filled with lame wordplay and scenes in which misunderstandings would be cleared up immediately if only the characters didn't stutter so much, and the wackiness becomes more labored as it progresses; the show's plotting would fall apart completely if, coincidentally, the husband's mistress (Abigail Hawk) and the hired cook (Kimberly Furness) weren't both named Suzy. (The French have a word for this, and the word is "merde.")
Yet we expect, and not-so-secretly want, contrivance and over-the-top silliness in a farce, and European farces have a distinct advantage in that American audiences tend to love watching "sophisticates" behave like utter buffoons. Director Corinne Johnson, however, has chosen to Americanize this Don't Dress for Dinner - the program describes the setting as "a country home outside Chicago, Illinois" - and it turns out to be a badly misguided choice, because the production hasn't been Americanized nearly enough.
Perhaps Johnson worried that British accents would be distracting. But listening to actors speak in posh dialects while their characters behave like infants is fun, and besides, hearing Hawdon's dialogue spoken without them proves infinitely more distracting. Hardly a line goes by where you're not aware of the play's European origins: There are references to "this sort of affair" and Furness' "proper business"; Walljasper calls friend Adam Michael Lewis "old man," while Seaton describes Hawk as "tarty"; Furness, leveraging for cash, says, "This is going to come expensive" and asks "Uncle" Lewis if he'd care to indulge in "a spot of incest." Everyone at Don't Dress for Dinner seems to understand that the characters are British ... except the characters.
The play's Midwestern locale is a head-scratcher, yet no more so than its time-frame. I don't know if the idea was Camoletti's, Hawdon's, or Johnson's, but the show's "late 1930s" setting doesn't jibe with its references to orgies and a "male chauvinist" character, and Furness revealing "I'm a Virgo" was truly confounding; was "What's your sign?" a '30s pick-up line? (The period at least allows for some lovely designs by costumer Greg Hiatt, but, oh God, how I wish Seaton and Hawk weren't trapped beneath two of those hideously phony wigs that Circa '21 seems inordinately fond of.)
It's possible that the chosen decade was meant to evoke classic screwball comedies of the past (or maybe to explain why these people don't have cell phones). Yet the actors' naturalistic readings don't suggest the '30s, and the absence of period stylization just makes the characters seem both excessively cruel and criminally stupid; played realistically, Walljasper seems like an ogre, and Seaton like a doormat.
Given all this, Don't Dress for Dinner should be unbearable. Yet damn it if this cast doesn't pull it off.
Lewis, here, is a master of vocal control. His dialogue isn't very funny, but the breathless way in which he spits it out most certainly is, and the actor punctuates lines with strangled shrieks and mortified deadpans. Lewis convinces you that the script is wittier than it actually is.
Furness, when not playing a deliriously hysterical drunk, reacts to the escalating madness with splendid, oh-what-the-hell disbelief; assuming her role in the subterfuge with "I should get an Oscar for this," we think, "Yes, you absolutely should."
Both terminally dizzy and the sanest one around, Hawk is an exuberantly physical comedienne, and her unexpectedly forceful deliveries result in explosive laughs. (Hawk's incensed admonition of Walljasper - "You fool!" - was the show's high point.)
Though the realistic bent causes both Seaton's and Walljasper's characters to emerge as less loopy than they're probably intended to be, both actors mine humor from seemingly humorless setups - Seaton's cluelessness leading to a satisfyingly frazzled state of high dudgeon, Walljasper's inwardly directed apoplexy twisting his body into a pretzel. And appearing late in Act II, George Schulz (no relation, in case you were curious) gamely uses his intimidating stature for maximum comic effect. Even when the script fails them, which is often, Don't Dress for Dinner's cast comes through with one hilarious reading or gesture after another.
Beyond the actors, though, this production proves just how many failings can be covered up by a professional sheen. Even when little on stage is commanding your attention, Amanda Sweger's gorgeous, sprawling set design is captivating - over the past two summers, Sweger also did extraordinarily fine work for the Timber Lake Playhouse - and while some of her choices here are questionable, Johnson's talent for inventive screwball staging isn't. The bit in which Schulz carried the play's three women simultaneously was gonzo perfection, and an early routine that found Walljasper and Lewis battling for the phone received deserved applause.
At Friday's performance, in fact, quite a lot did. Over the years at Circa '21, I've been an audience member or employee for dozens upon dozens of opening-night performances, yet I can't recall a single one that was so frequently interrupted by applause not at the ends of musical numbers, but following jokes. The crowd's delighted, mid-scene clapping was a wonderfully refreshing, even inspiring, sound, and one I was happy to add to. I'm not sure I've ever laughed so hard at a comedy I should have been recoiling from.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.