The new Theater Works production of one of Feydeau's most accomplished farces, A Flea in Her Ear, written in 1907, provides a firsthand look at the roots of most contemporary comedy.
Feydeau's technique is to exploit a ridiculous situation--the same technique typically employed by the most familiar of American forms, the television sitcom. The characters are types, drawn with broad strokes, with singular motives. We laugh at the complications that arise from the machinations unwittingly instigated by the characters. If you loved Lucy, you know the formula.
As the lights come up, a pretty maid embraces a corpulent secretary, but their stolen embrace is interrupted by the entrance of her husband the valet, who proceeds to brag that his wife is impeccably virtuous: "That little wife of mine is as faithful as a poodle!" The stage is set for deception, and we do not have to wait long before the principal plot is introduced.
The lady of the house is one Yvonne Chandel, who tells her visitor Lucienne that she suspects her husband Victor-Emmanuel of having an affair. The cause for her suspicion is that her husband's suspenders were returned in the mail from a place called the Pretty Pussy Inn. Her doubts are like a flea in her ear. Besides, she confides, he no longer wants to make love all the time, as he used to. Lucienne tries to reassure her: "A river may run dry, but it doesn't mean it's left its bed."
Lucienne suggests a way to test Chandel's fidelity. Together the women compose a perfumed note in Lucienne's hand proposing a rendezvous: "I am the one who couldn't keep her eyes off of you the other night at the opera. I'm on the verge of doing something foolish and I want you to do it with me." The assignation is set to occur at the Pretty Pussy Inn, and the plot is that Yvonne will confront her husband when he swallows the bait and comes to consummate the illicit tryst.
We shortly discover that the family doctor has prescribed prosthetic suspenders to correct Victor-Emmanuel's posture, and that he had lent his old suspenders to his best friend Tournel, who left them at the inn. Subsequently, we learn that Tournel has tried to convince Yvonne to have an affair with him, but she refuses until she can be sure her husband is faithful. I'm not making this up.
The action is laced with unlikelihood. The corpulent secretary is a cousin named Camille whose speech impediment prevents the other characters from understanding him. But the audience soon learns how to decipher Camille's vowels, and it is fun to watch the confused characters when they misunderstand what is clear to us. Add to that Lucienne's husband, a madly jealous Spaniard who brandishes a revolver that he threatens to use to avenge his imagined cuckoldry.
Once this nonsense is set up in the first act, the scene shifts to the Pretty Pussy Inn for the second act, replete with mistaken identities, mismatched couples caught in culpable circumstances, and improbable coincidence.
The humor is rarely released by the wit of the dialogue or from any subtle revelation of character. Most often it arises from our anticipation of watching characters approach a situation in which we can predict their baffled reaction to events beyond their control.
Human behavior pitched to the peaks of absurdity has rarely been as astutely etched as in the work of this master farceur. The intricate complexities of a bedroom farce require superb timing, and no one has ever built a series of disastrous suspicions as expertly as Feydeau.
To sustain his manic pace of invention requires a first-rate cast and a director with an acute sensitivity to the balance between belief and exaggeration. The Theater Works production is not able to deliver on any of these requirements.
If incompetence were a crime, Robyn Allen could get five to ten for directorial misdemeanors. Perhaps her rehabilitation could include some study of basic staging techniques.
Meanwhile, a sturdy farce like A Flea in Her Ear must suffer the indignities of awkward staging and forced caricatures in Allen's hands, wearing out the audience with obviousness where a light touch could have delighted.
The costumes by Margret Emerson are largely ill-fitting, wrinkled stock pieces, with particularly incomprehensible choices for denizens of the hotel. The set by Gregory Jaye defies all logic in the ground plan: A fireplace midstage sits behind a round kitchen table with three chairs, while the sofa across stage faces the footlights. At the performance I saw, a piece of set decoration fell midscene, prompting this lame ad-lib from the actor: "Damned house!"
As for the cast, the inimitable Greg Santos is reliably hilarious as the unintelligible Camille, and Julia Thomson is suitably perky as Antoinette, the amorous maid. Travis Thurman does double duty as Victor-Emmanuel and Poche, the porter, steady in both roles. Erick Mauldin is fine as the foiled lover Tournel, and the two wives are played with appropriate fixation by Dina Kay and Mary McGary. Especially a joy to watch is the simple honesty and warm heart of Thom Morrison as the doctor.
Of the rest, only Beau Heckman overacts egregiously, although he has many accomplices vying for broadest performance.
By the time the third act lurches onstage, the elan has left, the champagne bubbles of humor have gone flat and the comic souffle has fallen. The Theater Works revival of A Flea in Her Ear leaves one itching for a comic flair to match the author's ingenuity.
A Flea in Her Ear continues through Sunday, July 14, at Theater Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria.