In "Don't Dress for Dinner," the French farce that returned to the NorShor stage Thursday night, Katy Helbacka makes two bold decisions as director that could have thrown the production off the rails.
Fortunately, she booked a really good cook.
Bernard (Jason Scorich) is looking forward to his wife, Jacqueline (Christina Stroup), going away for the weekend so he can have a special catered birthday dinner cooked for his mistress, Suzanne (Jenna Kelly).
But then the phone rings, Bernard's best friend Robert (Jody Kujawa) announces he is in town, and the first complication gets the characters on their way to complete comic confusion.
"Don't Dress for Dinner," written by Marc Camoletti and adapted by Robin Hawdon, is a sequel to an earlier play, "Boeing Boeing," where Bernard juggles three stewardess fiancées. Bernard, Jacqueline and Robert are in both plays.
You may ask, does it matter that you did not see "Boeing Boeing" or that you did but do not remember which stewardess was Jacqueline?
No, it does not (she was French, worked for Air France and wore red). I originally saw "Don't Dress for Dinner" at the Playhouse years before they did "Boeing Boeing," and it did not matter in the slightest (it is a French play, of course he picked the Air France stewardess).
What matters in these comedies is who does not know what, and there are multiple things that multiple characters do not know.
(Wait, if Jacqueline was French in "Boeing Boeing," then why is she speaking with an English accent this time?)
Because having most of the cast speak with English accents was Helbacka's first bold decision. This made for several moments where the accents overwhelmed the dialogue, which is where the laughs should be. But Stroup and Kelly were both getting lots of laughs just with their vocal pyrotechnics.
The second bold decision was doubling down on the physical comedy, which included lots of hysterical stage action, but also several times where the mugging became excessive.
It seemed odd that Kujawa - who always plays Robert in these plays - was getting way more laughs for facial expressions than for his comic delivery.
What tips the scale in favor of these directorial decisions is the payoff provided by Suzette, the cook. Why do the other characters speak with English accents? So Jen Maren's Suzette could do that killer French accent.
I counted seven big laughs in this show. Maren had five of them: The first and last were rapid-fire delivery of expository explosions, two were pure physical gags milked dry, and the fifth was a running gag I doubt was in the original script.
It all adds up to the funniest debut on the Playhouse stage I have ever seen in a comedy, which makes this a must-see show.
Bonus points for Curtis Phillips including a water wheel in his scenic design (non-functional, but still: a water wheel!), but deductions for the descriptions of the characters and the page devoted to the play in the program giving away way too much information.
If you go
What: "Don't Dress for Dinner"
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday through February 10
Tickets: Start at $30 at Duluth Playhouse box office or www.duluthplayhouse.org