Two plays, two theater companies, two looks at love and sex. Tucson theatergoers right now have a choice between a frivolous French farce about adultery, and a black comedy about the erotic undertones of the Dracula story.
Don't Dress for Dinner at Live Theatre Workshop is the French piece, and hands-down, it is more fun than the plodding production of The Transylvanian Clockworks now on the boards at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company.
Sublimely silly, Don't Dress for Dinner is an antic confection set in a country house outside of Paris. The married master and mistress of the house are both having affairs, and fate conspires to bring both of their lovers to the place for a weekend. Since neither husband nor wife knows about the other's infidelity, each must construct an elaborate ruse to conceal the truth.
Here's where the already confusing plot slides into comical chaos: Bernard (Rick Shipman), the husband, demands that his friend, Robert (Keith Wick), pretend that he's the lover of Bernard's girlfriend, Suzanne (Debbie Runge). The trouble is, Robert is actually sleeping with Bernard's wife, Jacqueline (Susan Kovitz).
Robert has to comply with the demand in order to keep Bernard from finding out about his little thing with Jacqueline. But when Jacqueline hears the news about the supposed new girlfriend, she is not pleased—to say the least.
Into this muddle steps a Cordon Bleu-level cook, Suzette (Rhonda Hallquist), hired by Bernard to cook a meal for what he thought was going to be a cozy time with his illicit sweetie. Well, Robert confuses Suzette with Suzanne. Needless to say, a roller-coaster romp of mistaken identities ensues.
The whole cast of six is funny, but Wick is just plain brilliant in the pivotal role of Robert. It falls to him again and again to explain the sequence of events—and the assumed identities—to the rest of the party. If he's not quite as speedy or melodic as the famous Modern Major General in The Pirates of Penzance, he comes close. His repeated rapid-fire tongue-twisters are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The 1991 play was written by Frenchman Marc Camoletti, a widely produced playwright whose works also had great success in England. This must account for the otherwise unaccountable choice of director Stephen Frankenfield to have his actors speak with English accents. Frankenfield does an estimable job, though, of moving his players around and around on the small stage, making the most of the piece's physical comedy.
As in every bedroom farce worth its silk pajamas (and, by the way, costume designer Kristi Loera's jammies and nighties are scrumptious), Don't Dress has multiple doors that keep opening and slamming shut. The round robin of characters circulates endlessly in and out of the bedrooms, the front door and—this being a French play—the kitchen, where the hapless girlfriend, forced to masquerade as the real cook, is futilely struggling to whip up some haute cuisine.
The Transylvanian Clockworks at Beowulf has higher aspirations than does LTW's piece of fluff. Written by Don Nigro in 1977, it doesn't recount the standard Dracula tale; instead, it sets out to deconstruct its archetypes.
Traveling back and forth in time and place, the fractured drama tries to get at the story's underlying psychological truths. It looks at the dark side of human desire, evil and the pairing of sex with death in the vampire myth. And not so incidentally, it considers the dread of female sexuality awakened.
The characters are familiar enough from the Bram Stoker novel. Jonathan Harker, played by John Mussack, is the hapless English businessman who's ventured into Dracula's castle in Transylvania. As the play opens, he's back home in London and so deranged that he's been confined to an asylum. Two doctors, the young John Seward (Evan Engle) and the experienced Van Helsing (Bill Epstein), are puzzling over his case.
Could it be that Dracula had nothing to do with his madness? Jonathan's marriage may not be as exemplary as it seems, and the household he presides over is hardly the Victorian ideal. His wife, Mina (Elizabeth Leadon Sonnenfelt), lives in an emotionally gripping, erotically tinged triad with her cousin Lucy (Danielle Shirar) and a young maid named Peg (Laura Davenport); she's not altogether eager to get her husband back.
All of these characters are laboring under a sense of horror and unease. Wolf howls pierce the London night; reports have been circulating of children being murdered in a city park; and a death ship has drifted onto shore. And then there's the little matter of Peg's new gentleman friend, a distinguished aristocrat newly arrived from Transylvania (David Michael Swisher).
A painted backdrop by Aurora Baker, all lurid pinks and purples, underlines the troubled psyches and madness parading onstage.
Unfortunately, this description makes the play sound more interesting than it really is. Director Dave Sewell moves his players at a glacial pace, and the play's two hours can seem interminable. Apart from Epstein's vivid portrayal of the older doctor—who seems a little too eager to hunt for vampires—and perhaps Shirar's sexually provocative Lucy and Leadon Sonnenfelt's coolly composed Mina, the actors' performances tend toward the monotone.
But the fault really lies in the script. Nigro has tried to construct a kind of theater of the absurd, beginning with the incomprehensible opening speech by the madman Harker and moving into strange interior monologues made exterior. Occasionally, the non sequitur dialogue elicits a laugh, but more often, it makes no sense. And it's a pity that Nigro couldn't get past tired stereotypes of female sexuality. One woman is cold; another is a tease; the third is promiscuous.
Luckily, the action picks up in Act 2, as psychological exploration gives way to a whodunit. Who's crazy, and who's not? Is it a vampire doing the deadly deeds, or is the darkness in a human heart?
Beowulf has done a brave thing by staging this difficult play; the company could have gone the easy route, putting on a melodramatic Dracula crowd-pleaser. This one was a failure, but it was not a failure of ambition.