Court Theatre

In real life people are reduced to things all the time: they become objects summed up in polls, statistics, and projections. It’s a joyless reduction that simplifies in order to manipulate.

Farce also turns people into things–egos with sexual appetites that trip and trap them. But farce is more honest–at least it doesn’t want to sell us anything. Instead it turns characters into sex-seeking, door-slamming, hysterically lying machines in order to make all the machines sitting in the theater squirm and howl. We see with painful specificity how our drives destroy our dignity and how little we care when we’re in their thrall–when we’re capable of everything but shame.

It’s a nightmare to be trapped inside a farce, but watching one is like staring at a human traffic accident–no cars, no corpses, just a lot of bodies that are only too alive.

After Moliere, nobody did farce better than Georges Feydeau (author of Chemin de Fer and A Flea in Her Ear). By rights, Feydeau should get royalties for all subsequent door slammings–in Alan Ayckbourn, Neil Simon, Michael Frayn–because he reinvented the genre flawlessly.

Feydeau’s plays follow an almost geometric pattern of intrigue. The first act exposes his deceptive and randy characters. In the second act, the desires they can’t deny inevitably and horrendously converge. This act explodes with embarrassing encounters, near hits, and hysterical subterfuges. Reserving his best tricks for last, in the third act Feydeau springs on the by-now battered sexual combatants even more unforeseen complications; these either unravel the crises or provide Feydeau’s unsuccessful adulterers with an escape route from the comic morass.

In Feydeau’s deft hands, this formula could get laughs from a stone. The Paradise Hotel (1899) is a Feydeau gem, and Kyle Donnelly’s Court Theatre staging a virtual aerobics class in belly laughs.

Feydeau’s hapless turn-of-the-century hero is Benoit Pinglet, a man who apparently married his ear-splitting wife, the misnamed Angelique, in order to avoid sex. But now, mired in a desperate mid-life crisis, faced with an almost toxic case of the seven-year itch, Pinglet suddenly imagines himself filled with sexual “lava” and ready to flow.

The object of his libidinous magma is Marcelle Paillardin, the equally frustrated wife of Pinglet’s best friend; Henri Paillardin is a “frozen halibut” of a sanitation engineer whose idea of fun in bed is a deep snooze. Repelled by hubby’s somnolence, Marcelle lets Pinglet persuade her to tryst with him in the seedy Paradise Hotel (a dead ringer for the dive in the second act of A Flea in Her Ear). As Pinglet crows in one of many naughty puns, “Into the breach!”

Complicating their adulterous adventure is Paillardin’s son Maxime; this nerdy bookworm is being seduced by a chambermaid who manages to put all the moves on a man and still behave like an outraged virgin. (Hypocrisy is Feydeau’s stock in trade.) They, too, have plans for the Paradise Hotel.

So does Mathieu, Pinglet’s old buddy from Marseilles, a man who, whenever it’s raining, develops an amazing stammer that makes him seem to be choking out obscenities–until you grasp what he means to say. Mathieu has brought all four of his chattering daughters to stay with Pinglet. It’s an intolerable invasion, so he and his brood are being shunted off to the soon-to-be-teeming hotel. Finally, who but Paillardin should be called there to inspect its drains?

Rumored to be haunted, the Paradise Hotel is a pseudo-Oriental fleabag where the employees drill holes in the walls to watch the orgiastic goings-on. A dump that offers people with a lot to hide all the privacy of a boulevard at noon, the Paradise has turned scandal into a way of life.

Naturally Pinglet’s little assignation turns into a rendezvous from hell; anyone might barge into a room at any time, and instantly the temperature rises another notch. For poor M. Paillardin, the place really is haunted; he mistakes Mathieu’s hideously shrieking daughters for tiny banshees. By this point the only way Feydeau can contain the chaos is to bring in the vice squad for some mass arrests.

But if anything, the biggest guffaws come in the third act, when Pinglet, supposedly safe at home, must still hide how much he coveted his neighbor’s wife, both from the beaten Paillardin and from his own battle-ax spouse. Angelique has had her own misadventure in the form of a carriage accident, a spill that now makes her cherish her erring Pinglet. Nevertheless Pinglet, desperate to extricate himself from the police report, covers his tracks by indignantly accusing the only two innocent characters, Paillardin and Angelique, of adultery. A fulminating display of massive hypocrisy, his defense plays like a force of nature; it all but demands its own grudging respect.

Despite all their efforts, nobody here really sinned–farce prefers victimless crimes. So it can’t matter that they’re not punished. It doesn’t even matter that they won’t learn from their mistakes; those flaws are what make them human in the first place. (These characters are never more machines than when they’re denying their drives.)

Donnelly’s staging–her best work since Court’s Pygmalion–brilliantly hoists Feydeau’s erring humans by their own petards. I haven’t heard this kind of unforced hilarity from an opening-night crowd since the now-fabled first night of Pegasus Players’ Noises Off.

A Pinglet who snaps off throwaway lines as if he’s serving acid cocktails, Nicholas Rudall is a henpecked W.C. Fields caught on a Feydeau roller coaster. He’s never been funnier. Denise du Maurier plays Pinglet’s stentorian harpy of a mate with a Wagnerian overkill that makes her third-act breakdown all the more delicious and touching.

Linda Emond, who since Pygmalion and Serious Money has become Court Theatre’s great acting treasure, does it again; sweetly salacious, her Marcelle is a delicate concoction of professional innocence and contagious panic. As her unhappy helpmate, Gerry Becker explodes with wall-to-wall hysteria. Ray Chapman is efficiently hilarious as the twerpy Maxime, whom sex turns into a confident boulevardier; likewise Joan Elizabeth as the maid who makes him a man. But the actor most responsible for convulsing the audience is Peter Siragusa; his stammering, bug-eyed Mathieu is a comic masterpiece, matched only by the four simpering daughters who dog his tracks.

Court’s Paradise Hotel is a technical triumph as well. Jeff Bauer’s set effortlessly transforms Pinglet’s respectable drawing room into the dingy Oriental splendor of the hotel, Claudia Boddy’s costumes expose as much as they conceal, and Rita Pietraszek’s lighting is as subtle as farce deserves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.