You can see the smile creep into actress Patricia Kalember's pretty face as her eyes widen in the role of a married woman named Jacqueline. She has just picked up the phone to hear the voice of Robert, an old friend and the best man at her wedding, and from that smile and those eyes, you know something's going on.
That little something turns out to be one of, oh, maybe 15 causes for deception in "Don't Dress for Dinner," a wholly amusing farce tied so frantically in knots that the plot would get lost in the retelling. The play, in a beautifully timed Roundabout Theatre production directed by Broadway veteran John Tillinger, opened Thursday on Broadway. A smoothed-out overview of the plot that ignores almost every detail goes like this: A British hubby and wife (Adam James and Kalember) are staying at their French country château, and the wife is off for the weekend to visit her mother.
Simple enough, but before she goes, she picks up a call from Robert (Ben Daniels), who she learns is coming into town for the weekend to batch it up with her husband. She decides to stay, because she and Robert may have motives of their own. So — of course! — does her husband, who has hired a French chef (Spencer Kayden) to create a dinner for himself, Robert, and anyone else who may, shall we say, pop by (Jennifer Tilly). Later on, after the plot has thickened into something a little too dense for its own good, another character I won't describe also shows up (David Aron Damane).
I'll stop there, because the lies that beget more lies, a wildly blossoming garden of deceptions, involve far too many couplings to make sense of — a trademark of keenly written modern farce. In this, however, "Don't Dress for Dinner" outdoes itself. It was written in French by the late playwright Marc Camoletti — responsible for the brilliant farce "Boeing-Boeing," which the Guinness Book of World Records calls the most performed French play worldwide. Camoletti wrote "Boeing-Boeing" decades before he came up with "Don't Dress for Dinner," which opened in London's West End in 1991, after the British novelist and theater artist Robin Hawdon adapted it as a play in English.
That's the version on Broadway, and I don't know how much Hawdon may have embellished the plot, if at all. But I found "Don't Dress for Dinner" to be head-knockingly convoluted. So do its characters, as they try to explain what's going on as the two-act moves to resolve itself; part of the gag is that when they attempt to sort everything out, you can't follow a thing they are saying past the first two sentences.
This is not made easier by the accents — fast British talk and especially the extreme French-accented English by the otherwise marvelous Kayden, who plays the cook and becomes the main focus of the lies. I was sitting in the very middle of the orchestra section and lost perhaps 10 percent of the throwaway lines. In the end, it didn't matter, since the situation of the moment becomes clear with a nastily aimed squirt of a seltzer bottle or a shove that has people falling over the side of a couch. It is farce, after all. And it is, after all is said, fun.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
"Don't Dress for Dinner" is at the American Airlines Theatre, on 42d Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, New York.