March 13, 2009
By Mark Dewey
During these hard times, when individuals, communities, and entire nations are forced to choose what they will keep and what they must let go, theater seems more generous than ever. For a couple of hours every night, stage actors set themselves aside, allowing characters who wouldn’t otherwise exist to inhabit their bodies and take up their time so people like me can watch, and think, and be consoled. The same words, the same gestures, the same story, night after night. It’s a discipline of self-sacrifice, and I admire people who do it, especially people who do it for joy.
Like the Pieces of Eight Players, for example. Their inaugural production, “Love Letters,” which ran last fall, put two people on stage at separate desks and watched them try to tell each other the truth, a task that took them fifty years. It was the most compelling and consoling piece of theater I’ve seen in Loudoun County, and I took its memory with me to last week’s opening of “Don’t Dress for Dinner.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.
Director Mike Minnicino described “Don’t Dress” as a quintessential 1960s sex farce—a French sex farce—but I’ve never seen one of those, so I researched the play online. It was written during the 1960s by the late French playwright Marc Camoletti and adapted for English production by Robin Hawdon, whose version opened in London in 1991. It ran for seven years without interruption. A lot of Londoners liked it. Chicago’s Royal George Theater has been running a production of the play since last October. A lot of people there like it, too, even with a $60 ticket price.
Google offers nothing but positive reviews. “To say it tickles that much neglected, much-necessary, semimythical, recession-challenged appendage (the funnybone),” writes Chris Jones, theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, “is not to do the show justice.”
Writing on Examiner.com, critic Catey Sullivan begins her review by admitting that she doesn’t like farce. “Farces demand that everyone on stage be an idiot,” Sullivan writes. “Staggering stupidity may be funny in a five-minute sketch, but in a two-hour play it can be as unbearable as nails on a blackboard.”
In the end, however, much to her surprise, she liked the play.
The premise is this: Bernard’s wife, Jacqueline, plans to visit her mother, so Bernard invites his mistress, Suzanne, to the house for the weekend. He also invites his old friend Robert, partially to cover his tracks, partially to show off his mistress. When wife Jacqueline learns that Robert is coming, she cancels her visit with mother because she and Robert are lovers and she wants to have sex with him under her husband’s nose. When Bernard learns that Jacqueline has cancelled her visit, he convinces Robert to pretend that Suzanne is actually his own mistress so Jacqueline won’t suspect Bernard. But Robert confuses Suzette, the cook, with Suzanne, the mistress. Everyone drinks a lot, and lies compound with other lies, until no one seems sure who wants to go to bed with whom.
I agree with Sullivan: most farce strikes me as much ado about nothing, and I attended this production only because it was mounted by Pieces of Eight. In the end, however, I didn’t like the play. And I respect and admire the men and the woman of Pieces of Eight too much not to say so.
I’m able to see that they did some things well. Nancy McCarthy coils the telephone cord around her finger as if it were her lover’s curly hair, and she seems to give herself goose bumps when she scratches the arched back of the sofa. Tim Griffin manages to look more and more confused and as the web of lies proliferates, and the lines he has to deliver get longer and longer. But I find little in the characters to like because they want me to think adultery is funny, and I don’t. Maybe it was funny during the free-love 1960s, but I have a hard time laughing at it now that divorce is becoming the rule for American marriages rather than the exception. Maybe it’s funny in France.
I realize that, as Chris Jones says, the play is meant to satirize “the wimpiness of most adulterers,” but that’s an easy target to hit. Come on, I feel like shouting from the balcony, hard times like these demand the most of us. The time you give up every night is worth more than the wimpiness of most adulterers. Aim for targets farther on, I feel like shouting. I’ll be waiting up here in the balcony, and watching—heckling, maybe—because I know how good you are.