A big difference between a good theatrical farce and a so-so one is whether the story needs a lot of time setting up the pieces for the craziness to commence. The really good ones produce plot twists early, and add to them as the story goes along.
“Don’t Dress for Dinner,” which opened over the weekend at Theatre Baton Rouge, is one of the good ones.
Bernard (played by Phil Blanchard) thinks he’s got a foolproof plan for a weekend tryst with a fashion model, Suzanne (Eileen Peterson), at their home in France. His wife, Gabriella (Aron Coates), is planning to visit her mother. He’s booked a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Suzette (Shannon Harger), to make the rendezvous more pleasant, and has even invited a friend, Robert (Enrioco Cannella), to drop in as an alibi for the chef. What could go wrong?
Better question: What couldn’t?
Before she leaves, Gabriella answers the phone to discover that Robert is coming. Their conversation makes clear they are having an affair of their own, so she decides to stay. When the chef and mistress show up, they have to take on different identities to explain their presence, especially when Suzette’s husband, George (Knick Moore), drops by to take his wife home. As they say in the world of relationships, it’s complicated.
The story, of course, is only half the battle. It has to be delivered. Fortunately, the cast, directed by Kevin Harger, is up to the challenge.
Blanchard conveys the confidence and cluelessness that makes Bernard think this crazy scheme can actually work, while never picking up on the obvious signs of Robert’s designs on Gabriella. Coates brings a lot of energy to her role, and Cannella stays in an appropriately frantic mode throughout.
Shannon Harger conveys good humor (and avarice) as her cover story keeps changing, and Peterson delivers on great exasperation.
One quibble: Most of the cast’s accents are annoying. Coates uses the sort of overdone Italian accent usually found in bad spaghetti sauce commercials. (Bad commercials, not necessarily bad spaghetti sauce.) I didn’t find it as distracting last year when she played Bernard’s fiancee in “Boeing-Boeing,” a Marc Camoletti play that is a prequel to this one, but it rendered some of her lines unintelligible this time. Shannon Harger’s accent ventures back and forth across the English Channel — sometimes British, sometimes French. Peterson’s British accent is the most believable on this stage. There were times I would have preferred the actors had used their natural speaking voices.
As best we could tell, that’s what the opening-night audience did when it laughed. And it did that a lot.