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Stage Light

Laughing All the Way to Dinner

May 11, 2000|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It could only happen in a community theater: Before Sunday's performance of the Marc Camoletti farce, "Don't Dress for Dinner," Woodland Hills Community Theatre director Jon Berry announced to the crowd that it was his wife Judy's birthday and she was due to arrive any minute.

Just then, Judy entered and was greeted with a spontaneous group sing of "Happy Birthday."

You wouldn't see this in a professional theater, which is why a certain portion of the theater-going audience prefers the cozy, family feeling of amateur-leaning theater to the sometimes cooler mood of the pros.

For some reason, Berry's operation (which will move in August from Canoga Park's United Methodist Church, its home of 10 years, to a former Masonic Lodge half a block north of the Madrid Theatre) is one of the Valley's few community theaters and one of the very few that sometimes produces under arrangement with Actors' Equity.

It's a way, then, to keep things local without risking that it will be messy.

Berry's handling of "Don't Dress" is far from messy. It isn't world-beating, and its uneven casting reminds you that this kind of French boulevard comedy (adapted to English by Robin Hawdon) demands actors with impeccable timing, an innate sense of humor and whip-like delivery.

You generally don't get actors like that even in Equity-approved community theater, but the cast here is able to keep the crowd laughing, which is what the crowd came for.

To really enjoy this ultralight sex comedy, you have to not mind the almost mechanical contrivances Camoletti has constructed, following the hallowed blueprints of farce

It's easy enough to swallow that Bernard (Jim Miller) has arranged an evening with his mistress, Suzanne (Laura Caputo), timed with the departure of his wife, Jacqueline (Sylvia Deza-Lugo), to visit her mother.

It's a bit more of a stretch to accept that Bernard's best friend, Robert (Roscoe Gaines), is also Jacqueline's lover.

But as the wrong phone call is picked up at the wrong time by the wrong person, or the caterer (Marcy Austin) happens to have a name--in this case Suzette--close to Suzanne's, and arrives at just the wrong moment to give Robert the wrong impression of why she is in Bernard's home--well, this is the stuff of comedy manufactured to the level of durable plastic and about as far away from human experience as you could get while remaining on the planet.

The rest of the play, as Bernard and Robert try to get through a dinner without exposing their own affairs, is a ride through a jungle of mistaken identities, misalliances, some tipsiness and a bit of clothes-swapping.

The reason Camoletti's kind of farce runs forever in the commercial Paris houses--and America's community theaters--is that sex is always hinted at but never shown, and in the end, couples are properly matched and the marriage stays intact.

Miller is a tad broad at first but settles in for a fun performance that's thoroughly British (never mind Bernard's Frenchness) in a Robert Morley-John Cleese sort of way.

Austin is the other winning comic here, at her funniest when she's the uptight cook delivering her lines with taut dryness. Gaines delivers some effective panic, but Deza-Lugo is clearly miscast and, in numerous face-offs, not up to Miller's comedy standards.

Caputo is a bit short in the Parisian elegance department, and Robert Gilman as Suzette's husband isn't as menacing as he should be.

BE THERE

"Don't Dress for Dinner," Woodland Hills Community Theatre, 22700 Sherman Way, West Hills. Friday-Saturday 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends June 3. $16. (818) 884-1907. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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