First, a little history, since farce always requires an elaborate setup: Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when plays cut to one of several standardized patterns ruled the commercial theater, the French farceur Marc Camoletti (1923-2003) wrote a series of Paris boulevard successes, all now mercifully out of date and unrevivable. Regrettably, that doesn’t stop people from reviving them: Such is the idiocy of our money-mad commercial theater. Two of Camoletti’s plays scored long runs in London, back in the day; one of them, Boeing-Boeing, was tried here at the time and quickly flopped. Sensibly, New York producers didn’t risk the second.
Sadly, Time in its revenges brings all things. Although you’d have thought Boeing-Boeing to be long past plausibility—its action hinges on the premise, untenable post-9/11, that commercial airline flights arrive on schedule. Still, a few years back, it was revived in London, where the giddy Surrealist pointlessness of Matthew Warchus’s production struck a sympathetic chord, mainly thanks to Mark Rylance’s fetching performance, and duly trekked over here. Now the Roundabout, ever keen to avoid breaking fresh ground, has offered up its own production of Camoletti’s other London hit, newly adapted by Robin Hawdon under the title Don’t Dress for Dinner (Roundabout American Airlines Theatre), with the result common to sequels, especially when they don’t feature Mark Rylance.
Though much more conventionally plotted than Boeing-Boeing, Don’t Dress for Dinner carries a less implausibly outdated premise, since married people still presumably strive to conceal their love affairs from their spouses. The trouble with it is that its central confusion—a bachelor house guest (Ben Daniels) mistakes the catering-service cook (Spencer Kayden) for the mistress of his host (Adam James)—is the kind that could be cleared up with a one-sentence explanation. So you sit, in increasingly numbing impatience, waiting for the explanation, while confusions pile up with the unexpected non-absence of the host’s wife (Patricia Kalember), the arrival of the actual mistress (Jennifer Tilly)—who of course can’t cook but is compelled to pose as the queen of cuisine—and, much much later, the cook’s large and violently jealous husband (David Aron Damane).
Some of this might have been moderately funny in the age before fast food and microwave ovens, when supermarkets were still a rarity in Europe—though even then, I doubt that people who dropped in on friends for an intimate country-house weekend in a converted barn would have expected to dress for dinner. At the Roundabout, in any case, it all plays out with a kind of glum, summer-stock efficiency. (This is indeed the kind of play that would, back in the ’50s and ’60s, have had great currency in summer stock, on schedules that also featured masterworks like The Marriage-Go-Round and Natalie Needs a Nightie.)
Nothing in John Tillinger’s production is particularly wrong; it just never strikes a tone light enough to seem particularly right for Hawdon’s text, which itself never rises beyond the mildly amusing. James and Daniels go through the guilty male conspirators’ predictable takes and shakes with predictable skill; James’s physical “bits” sometimes edge toward the genuinely funny. Tilly, oddly miscast as an ultra-glamorous supermodel, plays coarsely, but Kalember gives a convincing portrait of an upper-class wife determined not to let any disruption spoil her composure. The only genuine laughs come from Kayden, best known for her performance as Little Sally in the original cast of Urinetown, who, except in a few passages where she has apparently been instructed to overdo, plays from the core of the character rather than from the desire to be funny. And the biggest laugh of the evening comes, not from anyone onstage, but from Kayden’s maid’s uniform, designed by William Ivey Long to convert instantly into an evening gown—he must have known design coups would be needed to rescue this painful Broadway week.