Georges Feydeau (1862-1921), that prince of farceurs, lives on more in citation than production. For door-slamming comedies of sexual surprise, for balletic across-the-stage chases in which every character must gallop at top speed, he long ago set the gold standard. He’s copied and stolen from constantly but is rarely seen in this part of the world. Arthur Storch staged the only previous local Feydeau revival of the last half-century, A Flea in Her Ear, in the early days of Syracuse Stage 37 years ago.
Thus the news that artistic director Kerby Thompson has brought The Ladies Man, Feydeau’s earliest success, to Cortland Repertory Theater’s intimate space at the Little York Lake Pavilion is worth sending up a flare. Farce loves tight, close spaces.
Farce is all about speed, and the usual criteria of what you want to see on stage don’t apply. You’d never want to read a Feydeau farce, unless you were checking a line. Characterization, motivation, plot development, suspense: Throw ‘em out. Nuance gets stashed, but not subtlety, or at least innuendo. Feydeau can have two people talking about a bland subject, like horseback riding, and it doesn’t take long for audiences to realize the speakers really intend another kind of, um, riding. It’s all in the timing, as the man said, and that’s why all attempts to put Feydeau on screen are strangled in the lens. It’s like trying to can lettuce.
Even among Feydeau buffs The Ladies Man may not be an immediately recognizable title because it’s an American adaptation by Charles Morey in 2007, who opened it at the Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City. Feydeau wrote the original, Tailleur pour dames, when he was 24 in 1886, his first hit. Morey and director Kerby Thompson reset the action in the early 20th century, which might be a favor to costumer Wendy Zea.
The 1886 date could generate two footnotes. One is that France had then recently been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War, and a lot of anxiety about the German military was still in the air. Some of the jokes about the might of the French military, which today play to Bill O’Reilly-ish Francophobia, were originally meant to insult nationalists in the audience.
Secondly, the French title carries two levels of innuendo, only part of which makes it through translation. A tailleur or tailor for women is a man who might make them happy with new clothes or in other ways as well. We get this in the title The Ladies Man (no apostrophe), who could be either a fitter or a lothario. Harder to signal is that Paris audiences of 1886 inferred that a dressmaker’s shop, where women disrobed in order to be fitted for new garments, was an ideal place for assignations. The CRT program addresses the issue by reminding that the set for the second act, the dressmaker’s shop at 70 Rue Sand Souci (“without care”), is where there is “perhaps another little business on the side.”
A wag once said that the difference between a tragedy and a comedy is the presence of a door on stage. Scenic designer Jason Bolen’s lush art nouveau set begins with six, not the customary five, doors, and an adjacent window for good measure. We’re in the second-floor parlor of the posh, upper-bourgeois home of Dr. Hercule Molineaux (Michael Schafer), in one of the more fashionable Paris arrondissements. The doctor is doing well enough to have formally dressed servants, like his bottom-groping butler Etienne (Justin Klose) and the coquettish maid Marie (Maria Cristina Slye). With efficient exposition, they explain that the doctor and his madame, Yvonne, are not sleeping in the same bedroom and, further, that his room is empty this morning. At her entrance, Yvonne (Shayna Vercillo) turns out to be drop-dead gorgeous and rather sweet.
Knocking at the window, stage right, comes the bedraggled doctor, his tie askew and his hair a mess. He has spent the night on a park bench in the rain—innocently, he asserts—having been derailed while leaving the Moulin Rouge by an ugly encounter with a bellicose Prussian officer in uniform. He confronted the doctor without provocation (ahem). The more Hercule talks, the more his story takes on a kind of dog-ate-my-homework implausibility when we realize that a lady, Suzanne Aubin (Suzy Kimball), is indeed involved here somewhere, and she is married to a huge, blond Prussian named Gustav (Joseph York).
Conveniently for moving the action along, the Molineaux upstairs parlor serves two purposes. Along with being a part of the residence, it also serves as the office and waiting room for Hercule’s medical practice. One is an actual patient, Bassinet (Nicholas Wilder), a skinny, nervous hypochondriac. The other is Yvonne’s sumptuously dressed battleaxe mother, Madame Aigreville (Rebecca McGraw). The old girl sports a huge hat with a long feather that has a talent, when she turns her head, of going up the nose of any man, innocent or not, who happens to be standing nearby.
Both Bassinet and Madame Aigreville are outrageous types who initially appear to have nothing to do with the dynamics of sexual subterfuge, intrigue and retribution at the center of the action and so must justify their presences with stand-alone humor. Bassinet flounces with feyness, current when matters of lifestyle choices were still locked in the closet. He repeats tag lines, a device also found in Laurel and Hardy, that sound like nothing on paper but become hilarious with mindless repetition. Madame Aigreville is the most richly written character, after Dr. Molineaux, and she gets the rowdiest double entendres. Consider the rich possibilities of riding sidesaddle.
Action switches to the dressmaker’s shop in the second act. Set designer Jason Bolen’s six doors take on bright hues, somewhere between William Comfort Tiffany and Peter Max. If we didn’t understand before what’s supposed to happen here, we see a tall pink bolster on a couch at center, with a bulbous top and two round extra pillows at the bottom, possibly the most X-rated prop in the history of the company. It is here that the necessary high frenzy is unleashed in the second-to-last scene, with everyone running at full gallop and every door slamming. It’s a triumph of generalship and strategy, both for Feydeau and director Thompson.
A misperception afoot describes farce as “mindless,” yet it is anything but. At the heated center of The Ladies Man is actor Michael Schafer as Dr. Molineaux, fondly remembered for earlier Cortland Rep hits like Moonlight and Magnolias (2006) and Sylvia (2005). There’s an echo of Nathan Lane in his bluster and failed attempts to cover his shenanigans. He squirms uproariously. His portrayal shows that the only way to deal with guilt is to blow it up with laughter.
This production runs through Saturday, June 16. See Times Table for information.