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Coming Undone

By Meisha Rosenberg

The Ladies Man

By Charles Morey, adapted from plays by Georges Feydeau, directed by Kevin Coleman

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 31

Are you ready for summer vacation? Because in this staging of Charles Morey’s adaptation of classic French farce, it’s a requirement that you leave your thinking cap at home and not probe too deeply for meaning. The Ladies Man is a romp through the misunderstandings of a young wife and her older doctor-husband, who, we discover as the play opens, sleep in separate bedrooms. Commence the opening and slamming of doors, mistaken identities and double entendres that define the genre of farce. To create The Ladies Man, Charles Morey combined two plays by Belle Epoch French playwright Georges Feydeau (Ladies’ Dressmaker and A Flea in Her Ear). If you can forget about making sense of the ensuing merry mayhem, and if you don’t mind your farce delivered with an American heavy-handedness (instead of that French je ne sais quoi), you will enjoy this performance, chortling despite your better judgment.

Dr. Molineaux has sexual difficulties with his young wife, and in the first act he drags himself through the window after a night spent away from home. Bassinet, a friend with a lisp, shows up just at the wrong moment and won’t leave. Then the mother-in-law from hell appears, uttering such lines as this: “Would you take me for a fool?” To which her son-in-law predictably (but no less enjoyably) responds, “I wouldn’t take you for anything, Madame.” Wink wink, nod nod. These hapless characters’ attempts to communicate with each other devolve completely from here, until they are reduced to games of cat-and-mouse, running into and away from each other in panicky confusion. While many of the elements of farce are on display (and you’llThe game of love: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (top) topples Jonathan Croy (bottom) in The Ladies Man. recognize them if you’ve ever watched the Marx Brothers, or Saturday morning cartoons for that matter), something seems to have been lost in translation.

Despite some high points (notably, Michael F. Toomey as Bassinet and Walton Wilson as Gustav Aubin), the acting is uneven: Molineaux (Jonathan Croy) seems more like a world-weary Frasier than a randy husband driven to the edge of desperation—a crucial flaw because his character is central. Still, Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Suzanne Aubin, his medical patient and would-be paramour, does a great job attempting to revive his spirits with her heaving bosom and bump-and-grinding. The excellent period set and props, like Suzanne’s misplaced lace glove and a measuring tape (used in a bawdy scene by the mother-in-law), keep the double entendres flowing.

All the usual suspects appear: the ironic manservant, Etienne (Dave Demke), and the saucy French maid, Marie (Caley Milliken). The entrances and exits of the overbearing mother-in-law are delightfully over-the-top with ominous music and lighting. Her daughter, Yvonne (Julie Webster), is the passive young wife, whose opposite is the aggressively lustful Suzanne. Of course, Suzanne’s Prussion officer husband is given to jealousy: Walton Wilson’s deliciously played Gustav, who rolls his r’s with Teutonic relish as he says “fragrant delight” instead of “flagrante delicto.” Bassinet, the lisping friend made vivid by Toomey, does a superb job of getting under just about everybody’s skin, mangling the many s’s required to repeat the trysting address of the dressmaker.

Some of the performance’s unevenness may come from the bumpy adaptation. In Feydeau’s original Ladies’ Dressmaker, Molineaux actively seeks out Suzanne; one wonders why our hero is more ambivalent in Morey’s version. While The Ladies Man retains the physical humor and preposterous misunderstandings of Feydeau’s originals, it lacks the playfulness and precision of true French farce. Characters in a farce must speak irrationally, not clumsily. Rather paradoxically, absurd humor necessitates exactness with language. It also requires actors to shed their inhibitions.

Farce relies on these contradictory strategies: the dramatic emphasis of characters’ basest, most foolhardy desires, and a subtle exploitation of the gaffes of language when those same characters attempt to cover their tracks. The ensuing absurdities are a delight to witness when farce works, but its effects are as evanescent as laughter, and as this play demonstrates, just as challenging to translate.

 


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