Reviewed by Richard Buswold, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When the show opened with strains of Smooth Operator and Mark Shum as Bernard entering to smatterings of applause I thought to myself, 'okay, there's his entourage'. Then he spoke. He spoke with the kind of tremolo in his voice that one might think of when one is making fun of actors. Then when Jacqueline (Dana Schultes) appeared and strutted across the stage like something akin to a drag queen I got very afraid. I was afraid that this production was going to be way overplayed and potentially, well, suck. Wow, was I right... and oh so very wrong.
The actors did overplay every line and took the stupidity of the farce to new levels... and It. Was. Friggin. BRILLIANT!
I laughed at the jokes. I laughed at the comic timing. I laughed at the stunts, the pratfalls, the off-to-the-side bits. After a fashion I even laughed at the set. Let me put it to you this way, I laughed a lot.
Marc Camoletti, a Frenchman, writes very fast paced, intricate comedies. His first international success was Boeing-Boeing, which ran for seven years. Don't Dress for Dinner was adapted to English by Robin Hawdon and opened to rave reviews in London where it ran for a total of six years. It premiered in New Jersey in 1993 and went to Broadway in 2012 where it received less than stellar reviews.
The best aspect of this show it the rather dizzying pace at which the story moves. As soon as Bernard and Jacqueline have their opening conversation, the audience is fully aware that something is up. Within seconds we are drawn into a delicious web of infidelity involving four distinctly sinners and ultimately, two innocent bystanders. Let me try to explain the dynamics of the situation. Bernard and Jacqueline are married. Bernard has taken a mistress, Suzanne. Jacqueline had had an ongoing affair with Robert, Bernard's best friend. Suzette, whose name sounds a lot like Suzanne is a cook hired to prepare a romantic dinner for Bernard and Suzanne while Jacqueline is out of town for the weekend. Robert has popped into town and decides to stop in on Robert (and hopefully ON Jacquelin) but gets caught up covering for Bernard with Suzette, the cook mistaking her for Suzanne, the mistress while trying to convince Jacqueline he still wants to be with her. Did I miss anybody? Oh, yes. George, Suzette's husband who comes in at the end of the evening to collect his wife and in so doing brings the entire evening to a head by almost outing everyone else in the house who actually IS having an affair. Clear on that?
The show is originally set in the swinging sixties but Ms. Vela decide to bring it forward into the 1980s to better play up the girls-are-a-lot-smarter-than-they-are-given-credit-for voice of the script. Even though the show is still very male centric and the women are generally playthings for the men, the way that Suzette plays the men and comes out richer for it in the end is very 80s. Mark Shum plays the gentrified man about town delightfully switching from bravado to panic with glee. He was very comfortable in Bernard's shoes and was so engaging with Jacqueline and all the cast. I must say that this is one of the best ensemble casts I have seen in years. Everybody was perfect for their roles. They looked, moved and sounded exactly as you think they should have been. Even though every aspect of their characters was ramped up almost to the point of absurdity, it was the ideal presentation for this farce.
When Allison Pistorius' Suzette is roped into helping Robert cover for Bernard's mistress her personality changes to a person trying to act who has no idea of how to act and Allison is so good that her already overplayed Suzette becomes stupendous in her excess. Robert (Michael Federico) and Jacqueline did their share of canoodling as did Bernard and Suzanne (Catherine D. DuBord) and everybody was watching everybody else's back making sure that the people having the affairs were not caught by the people who didn't need to know they were having an affair which led to many, many marvelous sight gags leading to peals of laughter from the audience.
Catherine D. DuBord, dressed in her stock 80s Chanel power suit and bling was wonderful as the person coming in late on the deception and trying to fit in where she was placed. Her facial expressions were pieces of wonderment to watch. Line delivery was spot on and just a joy. Farces will live and die on comic timing. If it's on, it's awesome in every sense of the word. If it's off, it's abominable. Every member of the cast is explicit in their timing but none more so than Michael Federico. The extended passages where he has to extemporaneously explain away oddities in the whole story of the cover-up are masterful, hilarious and outright exhausting and was rewarded with rounds of applause every time.
I said earlier that I even laughed at the set. The attention to detail was outrageous. The show is set in the 80s. Enter the Trac lighting and the exposed beams and Austin Stone. Through every door you saw the room behind, not just a flat positioned to cover the back stage but the room or the garden or what else. There were six entrances on this rather small stage, but Michell Harvey's design was such that it never felt crowded. I have been in other 'intimate' spaces where there is a lot demanded of a static set and the areas seem to be together and the actors tend to have to avoid the front row patrons. Harvey's set, although small and very busy, was free flowing and effective. The lighting was such that it made the set look like a converted animal barn. There were actually different light in the 'off-stage' rooms than in the main room of the house. There were no odd shadows lingering as the actors moved from place to place on the stage. It may not seem like much, but I always think it's weird when you see those spots on a stage where the actors cast a blue or red shadow across the couches. Kudos to Mr. Johansen.
Whenever I review a show I have started to post a pic of the program with #supportlivetheatre to hopefully share with my social media friends to get them to know what's going on in DFW. I usually don't post anything else. As soon as I left Stage West Saturday evening I tagged my pic with "Go see this show. Go see this show. Go see this show. GO SEE THIS SHOW!" And that is exactly what you should do. Opening night was sold out and I am sure tickets are flying out of the box since word has hit the street. This is my highest recommendation I ever give. Go. See. This. Show.