SAN DIEGO — The title, "There's One in Every Marriage," is the understatement of the evening. The one refers to "a fool"--yet, as Georges Feydeau demonstrated in this 1896 farce, there are two fools in many a marriage.
Actually, Feydeau's title was "Le Dindon" (literally "the turkey," figuratively "the fool"). Adapters Suzanne Grossmann and Paxton Whitehead chose not to name their English version "The Turkey," fearing the cheap shots of disapproving critics.
At nearly three hours, "There's One in Every Marriage" may be a bit excessive. But a turkey this show is not. A peacock, perhaps--Stan Wojewodski Jr.'s staging in the Old Globe at its most ornate.
Not content with the usual assortment of slamming doors centered around a bed, scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt created an enormous iris, thrusting upward to the top of the visible stage. Throughout the play, it looms over the shifting arenas of hanky-panky almost like the big plant in "Little Shop of Horrors."
The iris suggests an atmosphere of hothouse sexuality. The suggestion is a little misleading. Few of the sexual advances in the play are actually consummated. Most are rudely interrupted. But the lily continues to bloom and glow (under the guidance of lighting designer David F. Segal), perhaps a sign that lust springs eternal.
While most of the characters might well agree with that sentiment, the couple at the heart of the play might not. Lucienne (Deborah May) and Vatelin (Byron Jennings) lack the wandering eye of the other characters. They're happily married. What's a nice couple like this doing in a French farce?
They're falling into temptation and misunderstandings, that's what. Vatelin is surprised by the visit of a buxom "Viking" (Carolyn McCormick), with whom he once had a one-night fling in Stockholm. And Lucienne is pursued by two bounders (chubby but angularly assertive William Anton and handsome heartthrob George Deloy) who just happen to be acquaintances of her husband.
Can this marriage be saved? We don't doubt it for a moment. May and Jennings play these characters as sweet souls, temporarily befuddled but destined for happiness.
Vatelin is all thumbs--whether he's buying art (he takes pride in his collection of works by relatives of the Masters) or meeting his incorrigible Swede in a hotel room, yet Jennings maintains a blissful air of hope and innocence.
His final gesture, a toss of confetti to celebrate his reconciliation with his wife, is characteristic of this interpretation. Yet it's the one moment when the sweetness seems thick, when Feydeau's cynicism is too far away. Besides, where did Vatelin get the confetti?
May is downright adorable, even when she decides to take revenge on her (presumably) errant husband. As she finally tries to submit to her lover of choice (Deloy), she complains with just the right amount of petulance: "Do you think I am here for pleasure?"
Actually, Deloy's character isn't there for pleasure either, at that particular moment; he's worn out by an all-night round with another woman (Kandis Chappell, who makes a raucously funny grand exit, dressed by costumer Lewis Brown in underwear, a spectacular hat and equally stunning furs).
McCormick is hilarious as the impetuous Swede--and this is where Grossmann and Whitehead's translation, which added a few puns of its own, really pays off. The character was Spanish in the original, but Grossmann and Whitehead (whose earlier Feydeau adaptation, "Chemin de Fer," played the Mark Taper Forum in 1969) created a pidgin Swedish-English-French that would be hard to top for amusement's sake.
There are other characters--too many. The second act might be profitably trimmed. Three hours of this may have tickled audiences in a less candid age, but now we expect deeper characterizations or more intense laughter for such an investment of time.
Nevertheless, every performance at the Old Globe is a small triumph. And Schmidt outdid himself in the third act, which is set in the heartthrob's den of iniquity. Swathed in rugs and drapes of vivid patterns, with an elaborately gilded back wall, the room is a patch of romantic quicksand--which makes Deloy's retreat from his seductive intentions all the funnier.
Finally, a nod to the Old Globe management for scheduling this in the same summer as the Sondheim revue "Marry Me a Little," starring May and Deloy. One of Feydeau's cads, asked if he is married, replies: "Well, yes . . . a little."
Performances are in Balboa Park in repertory with "Antony and Cleopatra," Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through Sept. 20. Tickets: $16-$22; (619) 239-2255.