at the theatre: don’t dress for dinner

Farce is a theatrical form best left to the F’s: Frayn, Fo, and Feydeau. In lesser hands – meaning almost everybody else – the hijinks tends to rise no higher than juvenile sex comedy, which is about as good as it currently gets at the Roundabout Theatre, where Marc Camoletti’s limp Don’t Dress for Dinner is naughty-ing up the proscenium. (What’s next, Roundabout, an all-star No Sex Please, We’re British?) There’s only one way to explain how this creaky sex comedy managed to find its way to Broadway: a revival of Camoletti’s other creaky sex comedy, Boeing-Boeing, was a surprise hit a few seasons back. That endeavor, however, was blessed with the felicitous casting of Mark Rylance, who invested his lecherous Lothario with an almost unnerving degree of  pathos – and won a Tony Award in the process. It was still very much a farce – quite a funny one at that – yet it somehow seemed to speak to the human condition, too. That, dear readers, is what is known as a theatrical anomaly: the accidental elevation of schlock into art. Lightening hasn’t struck a second time for Mr. Camoletti. (Dead for a decade, I doubt the playwright much cares.) The very competent Ben Daniels is Robert, the eye of the storm this time around, and he plays it for laughs – which you’d expect would be good enough if the play were as well constructed as a farce demands. But it’s not, so you keep finding yourself doing something that’s anathema to farce: questioning the play’s inherent logic. You see, a really successful piece of farce features a series of extravagantly improbable situations, so full of plot twists and chases and random events that an audience shouldn’t even try to follow what’s going on lest they become overwhelmed and confused. The joy comes from observing how it’s told: the physical comedy, the bountiful word play, the slamming of doors, the stylized performances of mistaken identity. To that last note, attention must be paid to Spencer Kayden, who knocks it out of the park as a cook caught unawares and called upon to do double duty as Robert’s lover, niece, and tango partner. As a husband and wife trying to keep their indiscretions discrete, Patricia Kalember and Adam James simultaneously keep their balls in the air and their wits about them with grace. A miscast Jennifer Tilly is not quit as successful. Director John Tillinger keeps it all moving at the speed of sound but I’m afraid even that’s not fast enough to stop you from pausing to wonder if all plays should henceforth come with sell by dates.

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