Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 26, 2012
Don't Dress for Dinner by Marc Camoletti. Adapted by Robin Hawdon. Directed by John Tillinger. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by David Van Tieghem. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Cast: Ben Daniels, Adam James, Patricia Kalember, and Jennifer Tilly, with Spencer Kayden, David Aron Damane.
When Suzette (Spencer Kayden) arrives at the French country home of Bernard (Adam James), she thinks it's just for a cooking job. But she is constantly prodded in various directions in order to help cover up this lie or that infidelity by either Bernard or his visiting friend Robert (Ben Daniels) as they pursue their, ahem, activities: the former with the glamorous model Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly), whom Bernard had hoped to seduce while his wife was visiting her mother, and the latter with Bernard's wife Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember).
But owing to confusion with the two affairs' names, Suzette has become embroiled in an impossible romantic imbroglio that leaves her pretending to be any of several different relations depending on who's in the room at the time. When asked to put on something for dinner (which, to her shock, she'll be eating rather than dishing up), she dons the only spare clothes she has: a French server's uniform. That won't do, the men insist, and rip off her apron, blouse, and cuffs, and yank up her skirt to the armpits to turn the simple black frock into the slinkiest cocktail dress this side of Paris.
From that moment on Suzette embraces the role she's been inhabiting only reluctantly, and transforms from a bashful go-along to a (literal) mover and shaker who's in charge of everything unfolding around her. And Kayden (best known for playing the commentary-spewing Little Sally in Urinetown), sporting a personality that's as thick as her tart Gallic accent, is just about perfect as both halves of the character: the straitlaced hired help and the fulcrum of desire on this anything-but-ordinary evening.
Unfortunately, "anything but ordinary" does not accurately describe most of the rest of the show. Director John Tillinger's production of Robin Hawdon's adaptation, which premiered in London in the early 1990s and has been seen sporadically since in the U.S. (though not on Broadway), is respectable and professional in every aspect of its execution. But it never ascends to the dizzying comic heights that you always crave from farce, whether it's about human mating habits or (more rarely) some other topic. You get something that's undeniably funny, yet also firmly deniable.
Beyond that, however, James and to a lesser extent Daniels have trouble adopting the spin-crazy attitudes that might incite genuine hilarity. They're each so reasonable in their portrayals that you never completely believe they'd go as far as they do just to get whichever woman in whichever bed. Daniels is a bit looser of limb and inhibition, which helps round out the naturally reactive Robert as he's thrust uneasily into the spotlight. But both actors are unyielding, almost (but not quite) stiff in their ministrations, and never find their inner sensuality, the key to Rylance's success earlier and Kayden's now. At least their line deliveries are impeccably timed, which ensures a certain number of base laughs.
Much better are Kalember, whose uses Jacqueline's outward elegance to mask a racy interior that shows itself in bewitching spurts, and Tilly, who's particularly delightful as she tries to untangle the myriad of marriage messes around her. David Aron Damane, who makes a brief appearance as a pushed-around tough in Act II, is also quite good. John Lee Beatty's set design for a converted barn is appropriately warm but off-kilter, and Ken Billington has lit it with a humorous brightness; William Ivey Long's costumes provide their own sly satire on the proceedings.
But all in all, you don't get the same precisely pitched setups and flawless follow-throughs that are currently on display at the Music Box in the zanier (and much funnier) One Man, Two Guvnors. Only Kayden, as a tightly closed rose primed to burst into full bloom, is a truly compelling and bracingly theatrical anchor. So enrobed is she in Suzette's skin, in fact, that by the second act she becomes capable of bringing down the house with just a slight twist of her hand. Suzette is a woman who, like the actress playing her, knows exactly who she is, what she wants, and how she plans to get it. That's that most satisfying route for any farce, but it's not one that Don't Dress for Dinner follows as frequently as it should.