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Theatre in Review: The Dingdong (Pearl Theatre Company)

Rachel Botchan, Brad Heberlee, Kelley Curran. Photo: Russ Rowland.

In a way, the title of the new attraction at the Pearl (playing in repertory with Stupid F---ing Bird) tells you all you need to know. Mark Shanahan has adapted this farce from Georges Feydeau's Le Dindon, which literally translates as The Turkey. The play is typically known in English as Sauce for the Goose, an allusion to the plot, which is filled with revenge adulteries. Renaming it The Dingdong seems fair, until you realize that it is a setup for any number of smirking gags about penis length. To wit: "Your husband must be the biggest dingdong in Paris!" "Oh, I wouldn't say that." Doubling down on this approach, he ends the first act with a character announcing, "It's time I showed her I have the biggest dingdong in Paris!" and, as if that weren't enough, there's this: "We're a bunch of dingdongs." "Huge dingdongs." Really, what can they all mean?

Shanahan seemingly keeps the structure of Feydeau's original, updating it to Paris in the 1930s, while adding plenty of verbal gags of his own. (According to the program notes, the production aims for sophisticated screwball comedy; in reality, too much of the production's humor feels imported from the Borscht Belt.) The bourgeois Lucy Vatelin, who, pursued by the serial seducer Pontegnac and the bedroom athlete Redillon, announces she will commit adultery only if she learns that her husband has done the same. As it happens, Vatelin is at that very minute trying to extricate himself from a flirtation with Fabiola, an earthy Italian temptress straight out of a Roberto Rossellini film. Naturally, all of them descend on the same hotel room, leading to plenty of door-slamming and stuffing people into closets; another half dozen characters get drawn into the chaos. The kicker here is that nearly a dozen characters are played by only five actors who spend the evening rapidly changing costumes.

As long as the dialogue focuses on the characters and their largely sexual obsessions, The Dingdong generates some genuine Feydeau-ish laughter. Lucy, repelled by Pontegnac's advances, snarls, "You disgust me." He instantly replies, "It's not disgust, it's attraction. A common mistake." Listening to her husband refer to her as "the sweetest honey in the world" and a serving of filet mignon, adding that he prefers home-cooked meals, she snaps, "Keep referring to me as food and you'll be dining à la carte." Fabiola, offering in broken English her definition of fidelity, proclaims, "One husband. One lover. Faithful!" Someone asks Redillon, "You live in a hotel?" "I'm just going to end up there anyway, so why not?" he replies.

But nobody involved in The Dingdong seems to grasp the notion that Feydeau's plots are wild enough; there's no need to hoke them up with additional bits of business. The dialogue is full of smirkers like "My husband wishes to see you, Monsieur Pontegnac. He wishes to expose you to his Renoir." Vatelin, speaking of Pontegnac, says, "You should have seen him back in the day. Why, this fella, he loved every woman who came within twelve inches of him." "Twelve inches?" says Lucy, suddenly interested. Another character says, "I went to a party last night and met a guy from Brussels with a funny sprout." (Hey -- hasn't Brussels had a tough enough time lately?)

Also, everybody is dressed in period wear imaginatively designed by Amy Clark, right down to the underwear (of which we see a lot) except for Redillon, who is rendered as a cardboard Frenchman complete with beret (worn even in bed) and a paste-on mustache; in his first entrance, in a bizarre getup that includes a white silk shirt, 2016-style electric blue pants with the legs cut short to reveal his lack of socks, and black patent leather loafers, he looks like I don't know what. There are extensive, often vulgar bits of business involving flatulence and a bed outfitted with buzzers that go off whenever the mattress is pressed, none of which pay off sufficiently. And then there's the old wheeze where two or three people get tangled up together, looking to appalled onlookers as if they are engaging in some complicated sex act.

Also, the director, Hal Brooks, hasn't fully impressed on his cast the dictum that the more seriously farce is played, the funnier it is. Each cast member switches roles with breathless ease, but the fun varies from character to character. As Lucy, Rachel Botchan is one minute an avenging angel, ready to subject her husband to her sword of justice, the next minute a frantically guilty party, desperately seeking a hideout. She is much less effective, however, as Mme. Pinchard, a deaf matron with epic stomach problems. Bradford Cover's Pontegnac has the right spirit, especially when in desperate pursuit of Lucy, but the actor gives in to shtick as Fabiola's fussbudget Hungarian husband and the choleric Dr. Pinchard. As Vatelin, Chris Mixon, the only performer to play a single role, never lands that many laughs. Brad Heberlee's Redillon, his ridiculous costume aside, is a fine, funny caricature of an insatiable roué, and he also scores points as a virginal bellboy chased by the aroused Fabiola. It's too bad he stoops to a cheap Inspector Clouseau accent when playing the policeman who attempts to impose order on the action. The most impressive work comes from Kelley Curran, delivering four distinct comic creations: Pontegnac's vengeful wife; the lusty Fabiola; Mandy, a Judy Holliday-ish dame with a heart of gold, a voice that's pure Brooklyn, and an eye for any available male; and a saucy French chambermaid.

Sandra Goldmark's black-and-white unit set, filled with Empire-style details, is an amusing cartoon of a hôtel particulier and it transforms, with the addition of some colorful wall panels, into two different, and equally louche, hotel rooms. It's too bad that the stage deck is painted such a hideous yellow that clashes with everything else. (I think it's part of the design for Stupid F---ing Bird, but couldn't that production have gone with a more neutral color?) Mike Inwood's lighting is nice and bright, as farce lighting should be. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design includes a playlist of period dance band tunes.

The Dingdong is passable fun, providing a solid laugh for every two or three that fall flat. It's also easy to admire the cast as everyone goes through his or her paces, switching costumes and characters with abandon. But this is Exhibit A in the argument that light entertainment can be even more challenging than the most serious drama. The characters in The Dingdong suffer from a lack of discretion; you could say the same thing about the people behind this production. -- David Barbour

(19 April 2016)

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