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Review: An over-the-top (and beyond) farce

“Don’t Dress for Dinner” is two solid hours of mindless silliness.

That may sound like an insult, but you must bear in mind that this is a bedroom farce, and the ultimate goal of bedroom farce is to produce two hours of mindless silliness. Boy, does this French hit by Marc Camoletti succeed in that.

It’s a nonstop parade of leering puns, mistaken identities and people falling down on top of each other in comical ways.

And it would be fair to say that director Thomas Heppler and his exuberant cast of six succeeded in their jobs, too. The audience on opening night wasn’t just laughing. They were whooping, hollering and rocking back and forth. Playing farce demands, in some instances, abandoning all subtlety and letting your inner Jerry Lewis go crazy with mugging, flailing and pratfalling. This cast had a rollicking good time and so did the audience.

Did I have such a good time? No. The entire genre of bedroom farce wore thin for me about 50 bedroom farces ago, but I certainly do admire the craft and timing it takes to produce such explosive laughter.

I use the name “Jerry Lewis” for a reason. “Don’t Dress for Dinner” is a kind of sequel to Camoletti’s bigger hit, “Boeing Boeing,” made famous by Lewis in a 1965 movie. It shares some of the same characters and the same air of naughty sexcapades, but doesn’t otherwise make any reference to “Boeing Boeing.” It’s simply an attempt, and a successful one, to exploit the same “men behaving badly” niche, with the added contemporary twist that some of the women behave badly, as well.

Here Camoletti takes the entire concept of mistaken identities to new extremes. Bernard is a French husband who invites his mistress to his country home because his wife, Jacqueline, is planning to go visit her mother. Yet his wife gets wind of it and stays home. The mistress shows up anyway – and so does Robert, Bernard’s friend who was supposed to provide “cover.” Robert, we learn, is having an affair with Jacqueline. Meanwhile, a cook from a catering company, Suzette, also shows up and is mistaken for Suzanne, the mistress.

Sound complicated? Oh, it gets worse. Nearly all of the dialogue of “Don’t Dress for Dinner” consists of people trying to explain and/or conceal who is pretending to be whom and for what reason.

Heppler keeps all of this going at breakneck speed – which is the absolutely correct speed. He also stages a number of wild physical altercations – Bernard and Robert getting tangled in a telephone cord, for instance – which had the audience in hysterics.

The audience especially loved Shawna Nordman, who hilariously mugs her way through the role of the wacky cook Suzette. This is the play’s funniest character, since Suzette starts out being mousy, but then has to pretend to be a high-fashion model, a high-class prostitute, an actress and finally, a devoted, yet very drunk, niece. I wasn’t quite certain why her upper-class Parisian accent sounded more like British royalty, but I will say it worked.

Yet I liked Leigh Sandness, as the long-suffering Jacqueline, even better. Sandness had a drier, more cynical wit, and was especially good at the art of the lifted eyebrow and the jaded riposte. This was especially welcome in the midst of this “Benny Hill” style silliness.

The rest of the cast – Scott Miller as Bernard, Christopher Rounsville as Robert, Michelle Philbin as Suzanne and Jhon Goodwin as George – demonstrated great comic timing and a willingness to take it over the top. Characterization and depth were not required.

Camoletti’s script can get tedious, with confusion piled atop confusion, and there is no attempt to make any point beyond, “Look at what these idiots have gotten themselves into!”

Yet he also carries on a great theatrical and literary tradition by showing his upper-class characters as not very bright. In the best comic tradition, only one character comes out of this ahead – the hired cook Suzette, who seizes the initiative and cleverly extorts many, many French francs from the helpless men.