IF THE THEATER critics of this town are to believed, the only thing less amusing than Theatre de la Jeune Lune's Honeymoon China might be a honeymoon in China, circa 1970. Theatergoers have been led to suspect that this production, adapted from a French farce by Georges Feydeau, is at best unfunny, and at worst, a catastrophe. And if the Jeune Lune's capacious theater does not yet resemble a mausoleum like the Metrodome on a Tuesday night, neither could even a hard-core optimist consider the seats half full as opposed to half empty. By now, Jeune Lune has switched to PR code red and initiated disaster containment procedures: A word-of-mouth coupon campaign and a post- show meet & greet.
But equanimity (if not any illusory fairness) demands that one unpack the honeymoon china before smashing it. After six months of marriage, Moulineaux (Steven Epp), a carousing Parisian doctor, is still sleeping American with his prudish bride Yvonne (Robert Rosen). The arrival of Moulineaux's maddening belle-mére, Madame D' Aigreville (Luverne Seifert), sets the newlyweds on track for an appearance on Ricki Lake. (Directors Barbra Berlovitz Desbois and Vincent Gracieux seem to have taken Ray Davies's words to heart: Girls will be boys and boys will be girls.) Before long, they are joined by fellas with swollen bladders and fellas with leaking bladders. More humor that falls under the academic designation of "potty": A misdiagnosed diuretic, a blocked bowl, a toilet-talking plumber and his/her fabric-enhanced butt crack.
In the second act, the whole scene is (senselessly) shifted to a dress shop, where all permutations of boys and girls will make all sorts of attempts at infidelity at the constant risk of discovery. People hide in cabinets and they hide in wardrobes and they hide in closets and they wear disguises and their disguises wear disguises and eventually everyone is running around in circles and everything gets very manic and very very madcap!
Of course, trying to translate a pratfall into prose is, well, a farce--the equivalent of dissecting laughing gas with a scalpel to find its active ingredient. (As a footnote, May 19th's play-by-play audio-description for blind patrons should prove a marvel.) But empirically, there's no mistaking the near-palpable gravity of an audience not laughing. Especially in a city where audiences are known to laugh at anything vaguely approximating comedy. Yet the play's droll sets and careful choreography demand respect; this is, after all, a company that openly identifies spectacle as a goal in their mission statement. Interestingly enough, it might be the polish on this production that has contributed in large part to its hostile reception. While the Theatre de la Jeune Lune may not be the Metrodome, it's worth pointing out that their lobby alone is bigger than half the theaters in town. And, as with their previous production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, at times one can feel the scenes groaning beneath the weight of this space (and, one assumes, its mortgage).
All of which is the long way of saying that Honeymoon China is a good show. A slight good show, to be more specific. The charitable viewer could even locate some sort of substance in its pacing. From the solitary and orderly entrance of the butler Etienne in the first scene, Honeymoon China accelerates as if by the beating of a merciless metronome, crowding the stage with more characters and more chaos. By the final scene, the set has been turned sideways, the lamp dropped, the china broken; in a classically comic sense, society has been rended to its breaking point, then restored to a new (unstable) ground state. The honeymoon is over and the marriage has truly begun. But to say that the play grows on one from scene to scene is a mixed compliment--a toenail fungus grows on one as well. While Jeune Lune's timeless, aesthetics-only approach to theater has deservedly won many admirers, what is truly at risk here for the characters and their contemporary observers? The answer to that question might explain how a production as risqué as Honeymoon China somehow ends up feeling a little bourgeois.
One might even be forgiven for comparing Feydeau's play favorably to its recent American equivalent--a popular little show starring Jack Ritter, Suzanne Sommers, and Don Knotts. Yet while Moulineaux and Yvonne pirouetted through their myriad marital misunderstandings, this critic's mind wandered to a condominium somewhere in southern California, where Ritter and Sommers are forever in syndication, drinking white wine at the Regal Beagle or folding laundry behind a conveniently closed door. "Chrissie! Chrissie! Don't do that to my pants!" Ha ha. CP
Honeymoon China runs through June 30; call 333-6200.