Here’s what happens when a soufflé falls flat: What should be a light, airy, delightful dish becomes unpalatable. Such is the fate of Don’t Dress For Dinner, which should be a charming little farce, but instead, is heavy handed slapsticks. All that’s missing is the annoying TV soundtrack of guffaws and applause.
I apologize in advance for setting before you the tedious plot. The year is 1960. Bernard (Adam James) has arranged for his mistress, Suzanne (Jennifer Tilly), to spend the weekend with him at his country house near Paris. His wife, Jacqueline (Patricia Kalember), has plans to visit her mother, which she cancels when she finds out her lover, Robert (Ben Daniels), has been invited. All aflutter, Bernard decides that Robert must pretend that Suzanne is with him, which Robert, quite naturally, is reluctant to do. While Bernard and Jacqueline are in town buying food for dinner, the cook Bernard has hired, Suzette (Spencer Kayden) arrives. She is taken aback when Robert suggests they get to know each other better, but agrees when she figures out that there’s extra cash to be made. When Suzanne finally arrives, she’s forced into the kitchen to pretend to prepare dinner. Mayhem, if not hilarity, ensues.
In fact, the production employs an entire bag of cheap comedy tricks. There’s double talk, double entendre, mistaken identity, asides, slamming doors, “who’s on third?” style dialogue, winking, pratfalls, and mugging, mugging, mugging. It’s exhausting. The worst sin you can commit in comedy is to lose the sense of the reality of your character and situation, and start pushing for the laughs. Here, the humor is not pushed as much as bludgeoned to death.
In all fairness, there are some good performances. Patricia Kalember manages to show restraint, and therefore, to deliver some funny lines. But honestly, any man stupid enough to so clumsily cheat on this beautiful woman is more akin to a member of the Three Stooges than to Valmont, the protagonist of the cited Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Jennifer Tilly is a natural comedienne, but is hampered by a vulgar and unflattering outfit, topped off with a black net explosion perched upon her head. William Ivey Long, what were you thinking? She still manages to be sympathetic, but the way she’s decked out is a total wince.
There’s no doubt that the evening belongs to Spencer Kayden. At first appearance an all business, laced up cook just ready to do her job and go home, as the evening drags on, she becomes progressively drunker, and more into her role as paramour. A stellar moment occurs when “Suzi” is transformed by having her maid’s uniform stripped down; the resulting slinky cocktail dress prompts a change in attitude that’s classically comical. Kayden is a bright light in a pretty dreary show.
Jacqueline delivers the line that best sums up the problem with this John Tillinger directed production. The delicate creature that is comedy has been taken out behind the chateau, and the transgressors have “flogged it to death.”
Photos by Joan Marcus
Don’t Dress For Dinner
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42nd Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.