The setup: Madcap, whirlwind, and sexy, the farce is the perfect form of theater to revive the pants off of during recovery from an economic recession. As I recall, if you do it right, an illicit relationship can be one of the most affordable diversions ("We can't go out; people might see us!") -- but it's really the silliness that's the point. People hiding their actual or prospective side dishes from their significant others: the suspense!
So Marc Camoletti's Boeing Boeing, which eventually became a Tony Curtis movie about a man who easily juggled engagements to three international stewardesses until planes got faster in the early '60s, has made a second round in this century from Broadway all the way out to people like us. And another of Camoletti's scripts (he wrote a great many, but most have not been translated from French yet), Don't Dress for Dinner, is currently going strong 20 years after its American première that never got out of New Jersey. The West End revival ran six years, and now, on the heels of 2012's New York production, Desert Foothills Theater in Carefree gives us a nice big serving of crazy.
The execution: Well-done farce needs a sensitive, finicky director to enforce split-second physical comedy and verbal timing, working with a uniformly smart, energetic cast to deliver on the mission. Jere Van Patten has the funny, funny people here, like Deborah Ostreicher and Roger Prenger (both from Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps) and Diane Senffner and Melissa Powers (both from Epic Proportions).
Ostreicher plays Suzette, the fuel for the plot's ridiculous engine -- a plucky and opportunistic catering chef who, through traditional mistaken identity, not only has to pretend to be two different men's mistress but also doesn't get to cook anything, which is bad news for the characters but good news for us. Chugging iced Cointreau and relishing her taste of fake sophistication, Ostreicher is floppy and compliant by the time Bernard (Prenger) and Robert (Glenn Parker) spin her to face upstage and perform a split-second Jamie-Lee-Curtis-in-True-Lies makeover on her, and it all just gets funnier from then on.
Powers plays an actual mistress, and all the cute innocence she projected in Epic Proportions is subsumed in a curvy, vengeful, suntanned tiny fashion model who spends most of the show in a torturously low-cut black dress. Until she changes into the ten pounds of marabou in a five-pound pushup merry widow shown above. Some stage sirens are all hotness and no acting, but Powers is that wonderful, smexy combo of both.
As Jacqueline, The Wife, Senffner is a pillar of something that appears at first to be respectability but shows many facets by the show's end. Big hair, big dresses (courtesy of designer Aurelie Flores), and a big voice help her dominate while remaining toothsome (which is really quite hot as well). Her humor is based in the slow burn and the long con, playing a role into which husband Bernard more or less forces everyone around him by evening's end, but Senffner gives Jacqueline her own special pleasure in the complications.
Prenger and Parker snowball toward the comeuppance of two-timers (real or pretended), and it's delightful to watch them try to drag their heels. Nothing is particularly punished or rewarded here, ulitimately, except that dinner was awful, and for the French (in an occasionally distracting British English translation), that's punishment enough.
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And just before it all wraps up, Parker masterfully delivers a hysterical lightning-round explanation of almost everything (leaving out just enough detail to maintain his bro cred). It reminded me of the intricate story Lenny tells the cops at the end of Neil Simon's Rumors, except that no one I know has ever seen the Rumors scene done well. The verdict: Don't worry about Van Patten's program note that says the production is set in the late 1950s -- nothing but the briefly used luggage and rotary phone and Senffner's first gown even remotely support that. Don't think about whether that was necessary for a play that first played in France in 1987. You're a theatergoer, and you're accustomed to characters who don't have cellphones and change into evening clothes for adulterous meals at home. Just jump in with both feet (or however many you have) and join the happy, happy audiences of this bonbon.
Don't Dress for Dinner continues through Sunday, April 13, at Cactus Shadows Fine Arts Center at 33606 North 60th Street in Scottsdale. Order tickets, $10.50 to $29.99, here, or call 480-488-1981.