Don’t Dress for Dinner is a play written for the people whose favorite part of a farce is when people are caught in a compromising situation, then need to talk their way out—and also remember what they just said. Playwright Marc Camoletti puts his horny characters through a byzantine maze of revised, re-revised, and re-re-revised explanations regarding exactly who they are and what they’re doing.
The 1987 French comedy was the first Gremlin Theatre production 19 years ago. This re-staging under the direction of Brian Balcom inaugurates Gremlin’s new space.
Located behind Lake Monster Brewing, the new venue is a convenient and cozy spot to catch a play; at Friday night’s opening, the small thrust stage proved miraculously insulated from the thumping bass of a wedding reception taking place across the hall.
The play is set in the home of Bernard (Peter Christian Hansen) and his wife, Jacqueline (Melanie Wehrmacher), who skips a planned trip when she learns that Bernard has hired a cook and is expecting a visit from his old pal Robert (Grant Henderson).
It quickly emerges that Jacqueline and Robert are having an affair, while Bernard is expecting a visit from his own mistress, Suzanne (Sierra Schermerhorn), whose name is confusingly similar to that of the cook, Suzette (Maeve Moynihan). The Suzies are conflated, and the deceptions start to pile up.
Despite having been significantly rewritten by Robin Hawdon for its 1991 English-language debut, Don’t Dress for Dinner is full of dated language, attitudes, and expectations. The Gremlin team, strangely, has chosen to stage this production in a contemporary setting. Instead of knowingly flaunting the anachronisms, the show slams into them like potholes.
Why is Suzette delighted by the result when two men literally tear her clothes off, and why is Suzanne repeatedly appeased by Bernard’s promises that he’ll compensate her for conscription into housework by having sex with her later? Also, who stocks a bar with a soda siphon but no ice?
A play like this is all about momentum: Every line has to pull the audience a little further into the characters’ convoluted world. Pure conviction and impeccable comic timing are at a premium, and in this production, Moynihan delivers head and shoulders above her castmates. With a Fran Drescher accent and a strong sense of the ridiculous, Moynihan knows exactly what she’s doing even as everybody else on stage struggles to find the right tone.
The production is also enlivened by the too-rare moments of physical comedy that Camoletti and Hawdon make room for amid the endless explanations of who’s who and what’s what. Gremlin’s debut in its new home is an occasion worth celebrating, even if the show leaves us hoping for better things to come.
Don’t Dress for Dinner
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul
1-888-71-TICKETS; through July 30