If Viagra had existed in La Belle Époque, The Ladies Man would be a very short show. The catalyst for this roughhouse farce, which is freely adapted by Charles Morey from Georges Feydeau’s 1885 Tailleur pour dames, with details borrowed from the better-known Une puce à l’oreille (“A Flea in Her Ear”), is Dr. Hercule Molineaux’s sudden inability to hear his young wife whisper her favorite sweet nothing — the endearment “tigre” — without dissolving into a fit of giggles and detumescence. A modern-day Molineaux would just cry, “Physician heal thyself,” pop the pill, and put the tigre back in his tank.
THE LADIES MAN: Charles Morey finds the farce in Feydeau, but he’s no Stoppard.
But an instant cure would be as antithetical to farce as non-slammable doors. What the frantic genre demands is that the situation grow sicker and sillier as the miscommunications, missed connections, and misdemeanors mount to a frenzy — as they eventually do at Shakespeare & Company, where Morey’s 2007 Feydeau mix is in its East Coast premiere (in repertory through August 31). By the end of what must be Feydeau’s second act, the eight performers are shooting themselves in, out, and through set designer Carl Sprague’s classic five-door set-up like cancanning cannons. Alas, the play starts out as limp as the good doctor, and some of the troupe, perhaps trying too hard to perk it up, cross the line between rambunctious and heavy-handed.
Last summer many of the same suspects, including director Kevin G. Coleman, contributed to the delightful cocktail of slapstick and drollery that was the troupe’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, which he adapted from Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s Játék a kastélyban (“The Play at the Castle”). The hope may have been that comedic lightning would strike twice. But Morey, artistic director of Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company, is no Tom Stoppard, and there’s more bumptiously choreographed slapstick than drollery on view here — though there is some funny double entendre involving a large, tremulous soldier’s misunderstanding of instructions for constructing a riding habit. And Govane Lohbauer’s period costumes, each lace-trimmed puffed sleeve bigger than the last, are bright, sensuous fun.
The farce is slow to start. Molineaux has stayed out all night, and before he can knock at a window and be hauled in by his valet using an umbrella-to-the-rump technique, his young wife has discovered his absence. There’s a reasonable, mostly innocent explanation, but he’s no more going to give it than down that not-yet-invented Viagra. Besides, there is the sticky wicket that it involves an assignation with lusty patient Suzanne Aubin at the Moulin Rouge that he thought might improve his bedside manner but decided at the last minute not to keep.
One lie leads to another, of course, but too much of the opening act is devoted to Molineaux’s hapless patient and pal, Bassinet, who lisps and likes to play with the tools of the doctor’s trade, and to the mother-in-law jokes occasioned by the arrival — under a cloud of darkness, to strains of Don Giovanni — of suspicious if fetching Yvonne Molineaux’s mother, Madame Aigreville, next to whom, says the doctor, “Medusa is a sweet, sensitive country girl.” The Medusa bit is borne out by a headpiece whose feathers do, when first glimpsed in silhouette, resemble snakes. But neither that joke nor Bassinet’s lisp is funny enough to bear the belaboring both get.
It seems Bassinet has some real estate, formerly a dressmaker’s shop, to unload, and things pick up when, after intermission, the action shifts there. Molineaux has arranged a meeting with the sexed-up Suzanne to try to break it off. Her jealous and muscular Prussian spouse (having slept off a drug overdose — don’t ask) surprises them, so Molineaux must pretend to be the couturier. Pretty soon everyone else shows up for one reason or another, including Yvonne, who’s sure the place is really “one of those vile and disgusting pleasure palaces of sin where every carnal appetite is satisfied.” Which, in fact, it once was. This accounts for the remark — made more than once as the characters pop illogically out of doors they should not have been able to get to, given where they last exited — that “it’s a maze back there.”
The cast members fare best who can handle the mounting chaos with some insouciance, however frazzled. These include Jonathan Croy as the beleaguered Molineaux, for whom no improvised explanation is too preposterous to be delivered with confidence, Dave Demke as his brunt-taking valet, and Elizabeth Aspenlieder as the libidinous Suzanne, for whom the danger of being caught — as the Prussian husband would have it — “in fragrant delight” is clearly part of the turn-on. Her physical assaults on the protesting doctor reminded me of Helena’s entreaty to Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to “use me but as your spaniel” — except that in this galumphing romp, the spaniel is an over-eager Great Dane.