Two sets of first-nighters dressed for rain that never quite came on April 26, the last night of the 2011-2012 Broadway season. 'Tis a pity because both shows could stand a little H20 to keep their plots churning along — Leap of Faith at the St. James Theatre and Don't Dress for Dinner at the American Airlines Theatre.
A charming charlatan evangelist finds himself and his traveling tent show stranded on the sun-parched plains of Kansas — Sweetwater, where there ain't any — so he hoists a tent and gets busy fleecing the gullible, irritable natives 'til the town widow and her wheelchair-using son help him see the way, the truth and the rain. Amen.
Don't Dress for Dinner is a French farce originally titled (more to the point) Pyjamas Pour Six that has been Anglicized, Melbourne-ized, Jersey-ized and Chicago-ized in the 20 years it has taken to get to Broadway. Whenever the action gets too hot 'n' heavy, somebody grabs a seltzer bottle like a fire extinguisher and squirts the randy rampager in the crotch, dampening his passion and necessitating a change of clothes. Soon, everybody's slinking around in "something more comfortable." Ahem.
Aside from all that water over the damned, the two premieres have something else in common. They constitute dueling one-night-stands of William Ivey Long, who designed witty, ingenious, jingle-jangling outfits for both, running a dizzy gamut from a coat of glittery glass blocks for preacher-man Raúl Esparza to a sleeveless, cuffs-only maid uniform that barely contains Jennifer Tilly.
"Well, look at the actors I'm working with," Long said, giving credit to those souls game enough to get into his get-ups. "You start with the play, and then you start with the direction of the director, and then you go — guess where? — to the performer, and then it all just goes here and there and here and there, and it's real exciting.
"I think of myself like an enabler. I enable all their creativity and their wackiness and their ideas, and I always ask them, 'What occurs to you?' So it's really a group effort."
In less than 20 years on Broadway, Long has scored five Tonys (Nine, Crazy for You, The Producers, Hairspray and Grey Gardens) out of 11 nominations, and he'd be advised to make room for more.
"I had a lot of fun on this one," he whispered about Don't Dress for Dinner (an ironic title for a Long field day). "I'm sorta loving The Play With Six People. "
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Both shows broke about the same time, and first-nighters scattered to their party of choice. A by-now-grousing press contingent stomped leadenly to the Copacabana for the fourth opening-night party there this week (quick! alert The Guinness Book of Records), this for Leap of Faith. The Roundabout people opted for their regular after-party site (refreshing under the circumstances) — Planet Hollywood — to celebrate the launching of Don't Dress for Dinner. ROXX vodka provided two specialty cocktails for opening night: "Suzanne" with orange juice; "Suzette" with cranberry juice. They were not to be mixed or confused, although the characters they're named after often are in the sex-farce's machinations.
Tilly is the Suzanne of the evening, a mistress of the married man on the premises and pretending to be the cook Suzette (Spencer Kayden, an Outer Critics Circle nominee for this, like Long). "At my age," cracked Tilly in her chirpy way, "I never expected to be running around the stage in frilly lingerie, smooching all my co-stars. I thought, 'This is the kind of part I used to get all the time.' So, 'Hello, old friend.'
"Comedy is fun, and farce is fun because you get the immediate feedback from the audience. If you do something funny, they laugh. It's part of instant gratification.
"I did The Women at the Roundabout Theatre 11 years ago. That was an amazing production, too. The Roundabout Theatre treats everybody like family. When they called and they offered me this, I think that was the tipping point — that it was Roundabout Theatre. I thought I would love to do another show there. They do everything first-class — the costumes are William Ivey Long and Paul Huntley did the wigs, and then they get the greatest actors to work with."
A stage-debuting Isaac Mizrahi whipped up some bizarrely amusing frocks for Tilly and the rest of The Women — notably, a not-always-flattering curtain call in lingerie — and they were nominated for a Drama Desk Award (over the objections of the female nominators) and wound up winning the award. Fun wins!
At this rate, Tilly could turn into the lucky star for award-courting designers. "First Isaac Mizrahi, and now William Ivey Long!" she squealed. "When Patricia Kalember went to have her fitting, she came back, looked at me and said, 'I came from my fitting. You're going to be very, very, very happy.' He really knows how to make women look like women. If he wins an award for his costumes, it's got to be Spencer's outfit, where they take off the shirt and the cuffs, pull up the skirt, and all of a sudden she's got this fabulous evening gown on. It's so clever and delightful, that moment. I sit offstage every night, and I just watch. It's my favorite moment in the play — when they convert her maid's outfit into an evening dress."
Kalember, who, like Kayden, did the Chicago pre-Broadway engagement, didn't hesitate about the main difference in the two gigs. "We didn't have William Ivey Long — even though the designer in Chicago was amazing. It was set in the '80s there, and so we decided to set it in the '60s, and William got ahold of the costumes."
She was surprised to hear her character of the faithless wife, Jacqueline, has a history of infidelity, having been one of three stewardess' circulating around the city-mouse roué, Bernard, and country-mouse rube, Robert, in an earlier and more famous play by Marc Camoletti, Boeing-Boeing. Jacqueline actually bagged Bernard, but their marriage obviously hasn't cured them of cheating on each other. (The 1965 Broadway production of Boeing-Boeing indicates a "Jacqueline"; she was renamed in the recent hit revival.)
"We messed around with the accents in Chicago," Kalember recalled. "Jeffrey Donovan played Robert as an American, and Spencer's husband, Mark Harelik, played Bernard as a Brit. For a while, Suzette was Swedish."
French farce is about as far away as Kayden can get from her previous Broadway outing — Urinetown's blunt-talking, teenage waif, Little Sally. She plainly is having a blast: "I think my favorite thing is that you would never suspect what will be demanded of her and what she will pull off," the actress crowed. "She has no idea when she walks through the door what she will be asked to do. She looks a little dowdy, maybe a little homely, and all the transformations I get to make are immensely fun for me. She rises to the occasion and comes out on top."
The two leading men are Brits, making their second New York stage appearances. Adam James, who plays Bernard, was last seen Off-Broadway in three roles in the heavy-duty drama, The Pride, and Ben Daniels — in "the Mark Rylance role" of Robert — did Broadway in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for Roundabout. "That's the kind of thing Ben and I usually do — strong drama," noted James. "Farce is something new to both of us. It's more fatiguing physically, but the drama really drains you emotionally."
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses was quite a different play than this," Daniels understated, "but I'm obviously at the same theatre with the same theatre company which is a treat. I love it there. It's always kinda nice to go back to an old haunt, really. It's sorta has your kind of ghosts in it as well as everyone else's. Openings here are insane, aren't they? In London, you go for a quiet drink somewhere. You've three previews and one press night when all the press come on the same night."
The role is rather new to him as well. "Normally, I play very alpha males, and Robert's such a wide-eyed, innocent and slightly slow sort of guy — until he has had a few drinks, and then he's like a light bulb, and suddenly it can all kind of kick into place.
"I read somewhere that they said this is a sequel, but the plays were written 26 years apart. Camoletti wrote five plays with Bernard and Robert as characters in them."
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