Georges Feydeau was a master of the farce. His plays, punctuated by bawdy humor, slamming doors, and over the top physical acting, delighted Parisian audiences during the period known as the Belle Epoque–an age when Impressionism came into its own, scientific advancements were being made at a dizzying pace and a golden age of arts flourished. The Belle Epoque‘s American cousin was what we call the Gilded Age, albeit less glam.
The age gave us French farces from greats such as Moliere (Tartuffe). Feydeau, himself, enjoyed great popularity and success with others like Le Dindon and A Flea in Her Ear. For the uninitiated, farces put characters in improbable situations, are full of double entendres and naughty humor, mistaken identities, and filled with enough plot twists and turns so that, if done exceedingly well, it doesn’t even matter, in the end, what the plot was about in the first place. That is, again, if done well. Charles Morey has adapted several classic works including The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Three Musketeers.
The Duluth Playhouse chose Feydeau’s Tailleur pour Dames as “freely” translated and adapted by Charles Morey into something he calls The Ladies Man…which would be better titled with the French translation of the original work, The Ladies Dressmaker. The reason why becomes apparent in the second act.
Directed by Anthony Nelson, having formerly served as an assistant director at the Guthrie for their recent production of Arsenic and Old Lace, The Ladies Man is the madcap farce revolving around Dr. Hercule Molineaux, a man with a delicate problem he chooses to lie about to his wife, whose suspicions are only aroused about a possible infidelity. When the show opens up, we find Molineaux climbing through the window with the help of his valet, hoping to escape detection from his wife that he hasn’t been home all night. Later, he claims he has been at the bedside of a terminally ill patient, when, actually, he has slept the night away on a bench in the rain, unable to “perform” capably with a sex-craved woman. A white lie and, well, as they say, hilarity…ensues?
In the Playhouse production, Hercule is played by local stage veteran of comedy Jody Kujawa. When Kujawa is paired with the right role, there’s no stopping his impressive performance chops. Last seen in the Play Ground production of Little Shop of Horrors, Kujawa’s comedic timing and physical comedy skills would no doubt bring a solid grounding to any show of this nature. Except with this one. But the problem here is not one of ability–it’s about the material and the direction. And the problems start early as far as the production goes, before Kujawa comes on stage and, in fact, even before the show begins.
As is typical of curtain speeches, the audience is admonished to turn off cell phones and they are cued in on the sponsors of the show before the “curtain” goes up. For this purpose, Luke Moravec, who plays Etienne, the valet to Molineaux, takes the stage in what is an hilarious characterization complete with pompous French accent with mannerisms to match. This disappears completely once the show begins and is quite puzzling. In fact, only one of the show’s actors, Stacy Sudoh (Suzanne Aubin) makes any attempt at a serviceable French accent for the play which is set in Paris as a period piece replete with costumes and the occasionally placed French phrase. Rewind back to Kujawa’s performance as Molineaux. While his grasp of the scripted material and his natural comedy comes across marvelously on stage, Kujawa seems to be the anachronism of the production. Evoking a slapstick, almost Ralph Kramden style presence on stage, it is difficult to believe Kujawa inhabiting the character of French doctor with a valet. Carrying an accent on stage and proper period direction could have been a master stroke performance, but it just doesn’t get there and missed is a chance to fashion an actor’s natural talents to a particular role he’s not played before. Despite these misses, Kujawa brings the audience to laughter throughout the course of the show with his zinging delivery and zany physicality.
Complicit with his master is Etienne, the snooty valet played by Luke Moravec. Although mysteriously gone is the French accent, Moravec turns in a highly animated and sarcasm dripping performance as the backstairs snarky servant trying his best to help his master. Moravec shines in the second act in the dressmaker’s shop during a frenetic scene involving a scarlet draped bed in a house of ill repute and hip gyrating disrobing, demonstrating that he goes the extra mile for the fantastical ludicrousness of the farce. Sharing household duties with him is Marie (Alexandra Jost), new to the Playhouse stage in a respectably funny performance where she manages throughout the show, to thwart Etienne’s lascivious advances, often with her cruel laughter.
The suffering wife, Yvonne, is played by Jennie Ross, in a sort of one-dimensional portrayal filled with ripe opportunities to shine in the role. Ross, too, foregoes the French accent, drifting uncertainly from British English at the top of the show, to a complete abandonment of any attempt at all by the middle of the first act. She is wonderfully costumed by Carole Brossart (no surprise there, she’s the best in town) and looks every inch the pretty young, but insecure, wife wondering exactly what it is that her husband is doing to her and their marriage. Being that the script is a farce, there seems to be many opportunities Ross could use to employ over the top indignantly accusatory behavior; even when, in the second act, she finds herself in the dressmaker’s shop while on the hunt for her husband and the discovery of any unseemly marital infidelities. In this way, Ross’s Yvonne is the least farcical of the characters on stage. The dramaturg’s notes indicate that Yvonne has power in her marriage and wields the threat of divorce over her husband’s head, but little of that newfound independence can be seen in performance.
Holly Vontin, a powerhouse of an actress, lends her considerable talents to the role of Madam Aigreville, Yvonne’s mother–a moralistic firebomb of a mother-in-law, determined with tooth and nail to unearth any deception Molineaux is perpetuating on her daughter. One could only imagine the stratospheric hilarity the role would have exhibited with a haughty and indignant French accent–also absent from the period piece. The saving grace is Vontin’s throaty and snarly elocution and full-throttle inhabitation of her role. She is, during the course of the show mistaken as the Queen of Greenland, a procurer, and a madame through the twisting narrative of mistaken identity starting with Dr. Molineaux, himself. Vontin’s haughty air, in character, makes the naughty moments, especially in the second act, that much more palpable and laughable as the ensemble finds itself in the abandoned dressmaker’s shop aka a house of ill repute.
Rounding out the characters are Bassinet (Cody MacKenzie), the “terminal” patient Molineaux claims to have spent the entire night with although we discover very early on that’s not the case at all. Bassinet is supposed to exhibit an exceedingly annoying lisp and a flamboyant love of telling secrets. More muddle than lisp, MacKenzie’s characterization fails to take full advantage of its opportunities, especially alongside the sheer magnitude of Kujawa’s personality. Stacy Sudoh as the lascivious and mischievous Suzanne Aubin, is a shining presence on stage, fully in period and place–bringing to the role considerable polish and comedic timing. Her husband, the Prussian military man, Gustav (Kendall Linn) is perhaps the largest of the larger-than-life characters in the production, confused by the ever-changing identity of Dr. Molineaux while he’s on the trail of his wife’s infidelities. Linn’s over the top performance is worthy of the farce.
Did you get all that? Molineaux tells a white lie enlisting the help of one of his patients. His wife is suspicious. She employs her mother to sniff out the truth while Molineaux fights off the advances of a sex-craved woman whose husband is on her trail. The first act is a tough one but the payoff, as much as there can be one, is in the second act, where the set is transformed into the “dressmaker’s” shop, and where Molineaux agrees to meet with Suzanne. Soon enough, everyone finds their way there and discovers the true purpose of the otherwise abandoned space. It is here, in this act, that the frenetic acting comes together for the ensemble. The set design employs a revolving wall and several doors in and out of the shop where the blocking and vignettes offered are appropriately laughable. It is one of the few sets of scenes in the play where the actors are harmonious with the script and their roles. The play could, and maybe should, end there, but of course, there is the denouement, where everything, conveniently, comes together.
The set design by Curtis Philips is well executed although the huge set pieces in the second act cause a clumsy and unimaginative scene change. Jim Eischen’s lighting and Carole Brossart’s costuming both add pleasing and well performed production values to the stage and characters.
The Ladies Man isn’t the strongest season opener for the Duluth Playhouse, nor is it, really, the strongest of scripts from which to choose material for the Playhouse stage. It’s difficult, at best, to pull off all the elements into performing a suitably entertaining classic farce. The timing, the characterizations, the sheer comedic skill demanded by the genre can be daunting. Throw in the elements of foreign accents, period humor and demeanor, and material that is over a hundred years old and the demands increase. While there are some shining moments of comedy in this production, ultimately The Ladies Man misses too many opportunities to be more on the stage.
THE LADIES MAN. By Charles Morey, freely translated and adapted from Tailleur pour Dames by Georges Feydeau. Directed by Anthony Nelson for The Duluth Playhouse. WITH Luke Moravec, Alexandra Jost, Jennie Ross, Jody Kujawa, Cody MacKenzie, Holly Vontin, Stacy Sudoh, and Kendall Linn. The show runs Thursdays through Sundays at the Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan Street, Duluth, through October 2. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. This review is based on the September 22 opening night performance.