Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
More good news. To inaugurate their new home, Gremlin has re-mounted their very first production, staged nineteen years ago, Don't Dress for Dinner. This farce by the French playwright Marc Camoletti, as adopted by British playwright Robin Hawdon, is completely silly, completely bawdy, and completely hilarious. Camoletti is the playwright whose Boeing Boeing had a second life after a Tony-winning Broadway revival in 2008, seen locally in a 2015 Gremlin-Torch Theatre co-production. Both plays are prime specimens of French and British sex farce with a barrage of double entendres, and all kinds of implied and illicit carrying on without actually, per se, showing any sex.
In these plays, the characters are schemers or fools (or both) and the situations preposterous, and therefore may not be everyone's cup of teaor vermouth. Heading in to Don't Dress for Dinner, I actually expected to find myself among the scoffers, but I was completely seduced (if that is the right word choice) by the high spirits of the cast, the split-second staging by director Brian Balcom, and the verbal dexterity of Hawdon's adaptation of Camoletti's original work. This is not great theater, but it is a great time at the theater.
The story involves a married couple, Bernard and Jacqueline (names that confirm the play's French origins), each having affairs: Bernard with a "knock-out" (his words) fashion model named Suzanne, Jacqueline with Bernard's old school friend, and best man at their wedding, Robert. Jacqueline cancels plans for a weekend visit with her mother when she accidentally learns that Bernard has invited Robert to keep him company in her absence, so as not to miss an opportunity to be with her inamorato. However, Bernard's invitation to Robert was to provide an alibi to cover the fact that he also invited Suzanne to spend the weekend with him. Now, the lovers of both spouses are descending on the house.
Bernard begs Robert to claim that Suzanne is his mistress, to throw Jacqueline off the track. Things are further complicated by the arrival of a Cordon Bleu cook Bernard had hired from an agency to prepare a romantic dinner. When the cook, named Suzette, introduces herself to Robert as Suzi, he assumes she is Bernard's mistress Suzanne. A daisy chain of mistaken identities and intentional falsehoods begins, running none stop for two hilarious hours.
Wait, back up. Did I say Bernard invites his old buddy to his house as an alibi to cover being with his mistress? You might ask, "Since he did not tell Jacqueline that he invited Robert, and she found out only by happenstance, what kind of cockamamie alibi is that? " The kind that serves as a plot devise even though it makes no sense. If you let that be a sticking point, the rest of the fun is diminished. My advice is to roll with it. Yes, it's a creaky device, but it's also harmless. Along the way, the characters' thoughts are lubricated and judgment impaired by consuming large amounts of alcohol. I would not trust any of these people to be a Big Brother or Big Sister to any child, but they certainly adeptly make mayhem into merriment. As their web gets more tangled, the humor becomes increasingly physical, with a loopy tango, pratfalls and fisticuffs managed by director Balcom with comic precision.
The six actors in the cast range from good to very good. Highest honors go to Maeve Moynihan, the cook who walks into a hornets' nest of infidelity, and cashes in big time. She is superb at sizing up the complexities of the situation and adjusting to each new wrinkle. She also consistently employs a Brooklyn accent, which sets her apart from the other, more educated characters, though a bit odd if the play is to be true to its French setting. Gremlin's program doesn't say it is in France (as the published play does), so let's imagine it's been transplanted to somewhere two hours from New York City on a rail line, as both Robert and Suzanne arrive by train.
Also especially impressive is Grant Henderson as put-upon Robert. With a demeanor that brings to mind Greg Kinnear, his nervous ticks and stammer make him seem like the innocent in the group, even if he is carrying on an affair with his best friend's wife. Peter Christian Hansen and Melanie Wehrmacher are well paired as Bernard and Jacqueline, both aware of their own attractiveness and blithely willing to conduct their own infidelities while becoming incensed at the notion that their spouse might be doing the same thing. Sierra Schermerhorn fares well as Suzanne, with the requisite high-fashion looks and figure, willing to put up with the craziness of the moment for the love of Bernardor perhaps the $2,000 Chanel coat has something to do with that. Mike Dolphin shows up late in the game as Suzette's husband George, a much smaller role, but he handles it with precisely the right bluster.
Design credits serve the production well, with Carl Schoenborn's set design providing just enough suggestion of the former barn that has been converted into a posh home, in which the two guest rooms were the former cow shed and piggery (and don't think Camoletti missed the chance to milk that for laughs). Costume designer Mary Farrell has given Suzanne a tight-fitting black number with peek-abo cut outs that is a visual joke in its own right.
Gremlin Theatre has done impressive productions of both comedy and drama in its 19-year history. That its return to a regular production schedule is launched with this trifle is a sentimental gesture, as it was their first production those many years ago, and a good bet to get audiences in the door during these pleasure-seeking summer months. Don't Dress for Dinner, for all its lapses in logic and characters that don't deserve an ounce of sympathy, is breezy fun that gives all the muscles associated with hearty laughter a good workout. Not a bad way for a company to hit the restart button. I am looking forward to seeing what else Gremlin has in mind for its twentieth season and beyond.
Don't Dress for Dinner continues through July 30, 2017, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: General admission - $28.00, seniors and Fringe button holders - $25.00, under 30, pay half your age for any performance. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org tickets or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.
Writer: Marc Camoletti, adapted by Robin Hawdon; Director: Brian Balcom; Technical Director, Set and Lighting Design: Carl Schoenborn; Costume Design: Mary Farrell; Sound Design: Inna Skogerboe; Prop Design and Production Manager: Sarah Bauer; Movement Coach: Tamara Ober.
Cast: Mike Dolphin (George), Peter Christian Hansen (Bernard), Grant Henderson (Robert), Maeve Moynihan (Suzette), Sierra Schermerhorn (Suzanne), Melanie Wehrmacher (Jacqueline).