Wednesday, May 18, 2022

HART’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor a Loving Roman à clef By Tina Arth

Picture by Dawn Sellers shows Brandon Weaver, Jeff Brosy, and Steve 

Full disclosure time: prior to May 13, 2022, I did not know that “Roman à clef” meant “novel with a key. Courtesy of Neil Simon, Google, and Meghan Daaboul’s directorial bucket list, I am now enlightened – and delighted to have been in the preview night audience for HART’s offering of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Having been subjected to a few too many productions of The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, I was a bit wary of another play by the prolific and awesomely talented, but sometimes predictable, Simon. However, this lightly novelized tragi-comic take gives an eye-opening perspective on a seminal period in the history of American television writing. With its frequent swipes at McCarthy (Joe, not Kevin) and the oppressive politics of an establishment eager to label anything out of the mainstream as communism, it is thoroughly entertaining and remarkably relevant.


Quick summary: it’s early 1953, and the play is set in the writer’s room of a New York based television variety show called “The Max Prince Show” (a paper thin disguise of Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”). A group of slightly mad writers collaborate on the sketches that form the backbone of the 1.5 hour show. Prince is a constant thorn in the side of the network, which wants to cut the show to one hour, cut the budget, and introduce a less sophisticated style of comedy that will sell better in Middle America – something that neither Prince nor his writers have any interest in doing. By the end of Act II, several months have passed, the network has won the battle (they do, after all, control the purse strings), and Prince decides to throw in the towel, leaving his writers unmoored and unemployed. Very little research makes “the key” of this particular Roman à clefvery clear – the characters represent such comic geniuses as Larry Gelbart (“Mash”), Carl Reiner (“The Dick Van Dyke Show” and so much more), Tony Webster (“Phil Silvers Show”), Mel Brooks (need I say more?), and even the playwright, Neil Simon (whose character, Lucas, acts as narrator).

Given the much larger-than-life characters who inhabited the real wri
ter’s room, there is a very clear danger that Laughter on the 23d Floor could be an orgy of overacting and cheap imitation – but director Daaboul has neatly sidestepped this peril. Her actors all play their roles with varying degrees of looniness, but there is a fundamental restraint in their performances that underscores the reality behind the script. As Lucas (the narrator), Brandon Weaver is the closest thing to a straight man, and he gives us a clear idea of how Simon must have felt as the new kid on this particular writer’s block. Steve Koeppen (as the beret toting Milt) immediately introduces the theme of utter insanity, but calmly reveals the method in his madness when he clues Lucas into the comedic politics of catching Prince’s attention in a room full of whackos.


While there are truly no weak links in the cast, a few performances really take the show to the next level. I loved the narrow-eyed cynicism of Seth Wayne’s understated “Brian,” and Erin Bickler (as “Carol,” the only female writer) oozes with quiet resentment of the male-dominated culture of the group. For me, a real star turn comes from Michael Rouches (as Ira), a neurotic hypochondriac who playwright Simon openly based on Mel Brooks. I probably won’t have the opportunity to see the show again, but if I could it would be primarily to watch Rouches do his thing.


Costume coordinator Kelcey Weaver has done a spectacular job of dressing the eclectic cast in attire appropriate to both the period and the eccentricity of the characters. William Crawford’s set design is detailed and attractive, and (for me) a highlight of the show is the spectacular view of the New York skyline from the 23d floor window.


Portland area theaters will probably do a dozen or more Odd Couples before Laughter on the 23rd Floor reappears on a local stage, and courtesy of a Covid-related delay there’s only a two-week run, so tickets are going fast. Catch this little gem while you can!


Laughter on the 23rd Floor is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through May 22nd, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Another Sweet Suite Surrender By Tina Arth

Jeff Gardner, Mary Reischmann, Amelia Michaels, Lura Longmire, Aaron 
Morrow, and Kraig Williams

I must admit I was having a hard time getting enthused about seeing Mask & Mirror’s latest offering, Suite Surrender. Michael McKeever’s classic WWII era farce about a pair of dueling divas is funny, well-written and lively, but I felt like there was nothing new in it for me – I’ve seen the show several times in the last decade, and have seen two key players fill lead roles, direct, or both in previous productions. What I did not anticipate was the extent to which some new cast members would refresh and enhance the experience for me – so much so that I would advise even the Suite Surrender jaded to consider seeing the show one more time.


First, a brief recap of the story: Claudia McFadden and Athena Sinclair are big Hollywood stars who have been playing benefit performances all over the country to raise money for the war effort. They are fiercely combative rivals whose well-publicized fights are a big draw for the public, and it is essential that they be kept apart, both on-stage and off. Due to an apparent mix-up, both women have been booked into the same elegant suite at the Palm Beach Royale Hotel, and the play revolves around the (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts by the hotel management, staff, and the stars’ secretaries to keep the women from discovering the error. 


The first time I saw Suite Surrender (in 2013) it was directed by Kraig Williams, who was also called upon to play the role of Mr. Pippet in several performances. Aaron Morrow, who played the role of hotel manager Mr. Dunlap in the 2013 production, is the director of the current Mask & Mirror production, and Williams is again playing Mr. Pippet. Continuing the déjà vu all over again nature of this play, due to an unforeseen injury, director Morrow finds himself reprising the role of Mr.Dunlap. As if all of that were not enough, I’m pretty sure the stuffed dog playing Mr. Boodles is a veteran of every Washington County Suite Surrender stage. Got that?


Those of you who saw the 2013 production (or an intervening offering from a few years ago) will know that both Morrow and Williams are physically and expressively quite perfect for the roles they play (Mr. Boodles, while anatomically ideal, lacks emotional depth)– enough said. My focus is on the newcomers – starting with Lura Longmire’s utterly commanding performance as Claudia McFadden. She is imperious, demanding, and very, very funny –and she absolutely nails the vocals (yes, there is singing!). Mary Reischmann’s extraordinarily egotistical and lascivious take on Athena Sinclair creates the perfect adversary – and Reischmann absolutely ROCKS the 1940s Hollywood-era dress she is wearing. 


Other star turns that demand mention include Laurie Monday, who is unbelievable as the befuddled and perennially wide-eyed Mrs. Osgood – definitely not to be missed. While he spends a significant amount of time out of sight and apparently unconscious, Steve Hotaling takes Otis to truly lofty heights of cluelessness and is a joy to watch. 


As always, Woody Woodbury’s set is exquisite, and captures the flavor of the time and place precisely.  Morrow has drawn strong performances from all of his cast members – my one complaint would be that in the opening scene characters seemed to be rushing their lines, which made it hard to follow the dialogue. Once the pacing settled down everything was sharp and clear. It’s not a long show, and there’s no need to hurry!


Mask & Mirror’s Suite Surrender runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through May 22 at “The Stage” at Rise Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The Comedy of Errors – Don’t Overthink It! By Tina Arth


Picture shows Ira Kortum, 
Karen Schlect, Brent McMorris, and Carl Dahlquist.

Dramaturgical analysis be damned – in my universe, sometimes a banana is just a banana, and a comedy is just a comedy. Canon Shakespeare Company’s current production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (on stage at Twilight’s Performing Arts Theater) is a classic example of this principle. Any attempt to dwell on alienation, the meaning of identity, or the tragedy of families or neighboring duchies being torn apart by unwarranted disputes (yeah, that’s YOU I’m talking to, Mr. Putin) cheapens a play that is already, in many ways, quite cheap enough! Director Alec Henneberger and his cast deliver straight up slapstick farce that would probably make The Bard proud.

The play moves quickly, and is premised on an absurdly exaggerated set of coincidences that can leave unwary audience members scratching their heads, unless they are given a heads up. Here’s the set-up, with no pretense of brevity: Syracusan merchant Egeon and his wife had identical twin sons, both inexplicably named Antipholus. Shortly after the twins’ birth, Egeon purchased a pair of infants, twins Dromio and Dromio (seeing a pattern here?) as slaves for his sons. While on a sea voyage, the family (and boat, presumably) is torn apart by a fierce tempest; Egeon saves one son and slave but carelessly loses track of his wife, who saves the other pair of infants. Time passes, and now-adult Antipholus of Syracuse goes off in search of his missing brother. When Antipholus doesn’t return, Egeon sets out to look for him and finds himself in Ephesus. This is not good - Ephesus and Syracuse are at odds, and merchants from Syracuse are forbidden to enter Ephesus on pain of death. Egeon is captured and confined until he can come up with 1000 marks as ransom; hoping for mercy he tells his tragic tale of loss to the Duke of Ephesus. Coincidentally, Antipholus (of Syracuse) and Dromio (of Syracuse) have arrived in Ephesus, unaware that the missing brother and slave are actually Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus. Neither the townspeople, the slaves, Adriana (wife of Antipholus of Ephesus), nor the two brothers are able to distinguish between the identical twins, and mistaken identities lead to a series of misunderstandings, beatings, seductions, and other tomfoolery for two acts leading to (surprise!) reconciliations all around.

In an interesting little twist, the role of the Duke is played each night by an audience member who is not given advance notice of their assignment, and who reads the Duke’s lines from a screen on stage. The rest of the parts are filled via more conventional casting protocols, with nine experienced actors filling the remaining fourteen roles. High points of a very lively, if occasionally chaotic preview night production include Stephanie Crowley’s gold merchant Angelo – by Act II, her crisp control of her increasing rage is truly memorable. Speaking of rage (if not control), Katy Deri’s frenetic take on Antipholus of Syracuse is definitely worth watching, although I found the decision to keep one of their shoes off for convenient slave-beating a bit distracting.  Despite a few mangled lines, Karen Schlect (as Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife Adriana) delivers an impressive dose of genuine emotion, unexpected and very welcome in a play where the general theme is over-the-top farce. 

Four stars to Ira Kortum, who spends an inordinate amount of time chained up as Egeon, stoically awaiting his doom (and generally messing with the audience) – when released from confinement he simply sparkles as the lovely and impatient maid, Luce. The rest of the cast (Genevieve Larson, Carl Dahlquist, Sean Christopher Franson, Kari Warfield, and Brent McMorris) all acquit themselves with high humor - I would especially like to see Warfield in a meatier role.

The Comedy of Errors will of course be fun for Shakespeare aficionados (who should all appreciate a little lowbrow humor). However, it is especially appropriate (with a minuscule amount of preparation) for people put off or intimidated by the Bard’s reputation for Important Drama - they will find this production to be extremely accessible and non-threatening. Now that most live local theater is opening up, hie yourself to North Portland for a couple of hours of entertainment – this is the last week of the run!

Canon Shakespeare Company’s The Comedy of Errors is playing at Twllight’s Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, May 8th with 8:00 PM performances on May 6/7 and 3:00 PM matiness May 7/8.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Mamma Mia! What a Mamma Mia! By Tina Arth


Ashley Moore, Jennifer Grimes, and Leslie Inmon

There are many reasons to love Forest Grove’s venerable community theater, Theatre in the Grove, but the one that really stands out to me is that TITG is fully committed to its mission to make theater arts accessible to the broadest possible community. The current production of Mamma Mia! Is a superb example – a crowd-pleasing musical for a wide audience that also gives scores (43 by my count) of stage veterans and newbies the opportunity to participate in the magic of making live theater. The lists of cast, crew, and orchestra include lots of locals, but TITG also takes advantage of talent from all over the Portland metro area (and the occasional exchange student!). Director Dorinda Toner and her production team have taken the unique abilities of this little horde of vocalists, actors, dancers, musicians, and techies, and molded them into a cohesive unit that has the audience singing and dancing (or at least clapping more or less on beat) by the end of Act II.

Although it was a smash hit when first staged in 1999 and remains wildly popular, Playwright Catherine Johnson’s jukebox musical built around the music of ABBA is, IMHO, fatally flawed as dramatic art by the disconnect between the book and the music – there are plot holes wider than the Bermuda Triangle. Remarkably, when produced with unabashed flair and the right sense of humor (and this Mamma Mia! most definitely is) it just doesn’t matter. As long as the orchestra is solid, solos bright, harmonies tight, costumes flamboyant, and dancers enthusiastic, the audience will have as much fun as the performers. It also doesn’t hurt if you like the music of ABBA, but are not so obsessive that occasional changes in lyrics or arrangements ruin the experience. 

In case you don’t know the basic story – Donna is a forty-something woman who has built a taverna on an unnamed Greek island. Daughter Sophie is getting married, and she would like her father to walk her down the aisle – but she doesn’t know who her father is (Donna had a bit of a wild youth, and the dad could be any one of three men). Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has invited Bill, Harry, and Sam (the possible sperm donors) to the wedding, thinking that she’ll know which one is really her dad when she meets them. Also on the island? Donna’s two best friends from the good old days, Tanya and Rosie. And of course Sophie’s fiancé Sky and her best friends Ali and Lisa, plus a couple of bartenders and a healthy dose of lively locals. Donna thinks Sophie is too young to marry, and Sophie thinks her mother should perhaps have considered marriage in lieu of promiscuity and the burdens of single parenthood. As they sing and dance their way through some 26 ABBA songs, the cast members work out their problems and (in classic musical comedy fashion) everything comes out just fine.

Theatre in the Grove newcomer Madeline Hui  is simply perfect as Sophie – she is a fine actor, and her lovely soprano voice is flawless from the opening number, “I Have a Dream,” through the celebratory epilogue. The other key role features TITG veteran Jennifer Grimes, a beautiful belter who was born to play this role – she has that brilliant combination of strength and vulnerability essential to the role of Donna, and her hate/love relationship with Sam (played by her husband, James Grimes) gives us the most intense emotional moments in the show.

With such a large cast, I can’t possibly recognize everybody who deserves it – but when you go watch for Donna, Tanya (Ashley Moore), and Rosie (Leslie Inmon) killing it with “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen,” the amazing “Super Trouper” (featuring the entire female ensemble), and some truly eye-popping chemistry between Moore and Max Marckel (Pepper) as well as Inmon and Nick Serrone (Bill).  The entire ensemble leaves it all on the stage in the many dance numbers, with a special nod to the younger ensemble members who contribute irresistible, uninhibited, and nonstop joie de vivre.

James Grimes’ set design is attractive and clever, allowing many scene changes with minimal delay. Ward Ramsdell and Sandy Cronin have done a marvelous job with complex lighting design, creating ocean waves, ‘70s disco magic, and a host of other special effects. Chris Byrne tackled the challenging task of costuming a large cast with occasional jumps between the 1970s and 1990s, including some quick-change surprises and some sparkly and truly memorable color combinations. And of course high praise for musical director/conductor Michelle Bahr and her unseen but not unappreciated orchestra as they drive the show from prologue to epilogue.

Mamma Mia! is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through Sunday, May 1 with performances at 7:30 P.M.  on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 P.M. on Sundays.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Don’t Hug Me (But DO See Me!)


I don’t know how the rest of y’all are faring, but the last few years have offered me more tough moments than were strictly necessary. I am thus abnormally grateful for anything that makes me laugh, and Broadway Rose’s current production of playwright Phil Olson’s Don’t Hug Me (music by Paul Olson) has earned my eternal gratitude and then some. Yes, it’s absurd – a fact openly embraced by director Dan Murphy, who admits that he “thought it was one of the silliest shows I’d ever encountered.” Aside from the always-strong Broadway Rose production standards, the show’s salvation comes from that fine line between “silly” (it most certainly is) and “stupid” (it most certainly is not!). The dialogue and songs are delivered with 100% fidelity to a dense Minnesota/Scandinavian accent, and Olson has peppered the script with scores of increasingly bizarre regional epithets that keep the audience in stitches. 

A brief synopsis: it’s the coldest day of the year in Ely, Minnesota, with a fierce storm blowing outside Gunner and Clara Olson’s struggling little bar, The Bunyan. Sick of the cold, Gunner wants to sell the bar and move to Florida, but Clara is unwilling to give up her love of ice fishing and her past glory as Winter Carnival Bunyan Queen. Waitress Bernice Lundstrom wants to pursue a singing career, but her fiancé Kanute Gunderson forbids it. Enter intrepid salesman Aarvid Gisselsen, dragging a giant karaoke machine that he swears will save the bar and bring romance back into their icy world. Clara, Bernice, and the menfolk sing their way through the karaoke machine’s extensive menu of works by the immortal Sven Yorgensen, including such classics as “I’m A Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town,” “He Wore a Purple Tux,” and my personal favorite, “Little Ernie Eelput” (from Yorgensen’s Peter, Paul and Mary phase). In the end, Gisselsen’s promise comes true, and everybody (well, almost everybody) discovers or rediscovers the love that’s been missing from their lives. 

Each of the five actors brings it all every time they walk on the stage, and each brings something unique. Among the highlights? Watch Kevin-Michael Moore’s face - if competitive girning ever becomes a fad, my money will definitely be on his Gunner character, and he brings to mind the grizzled folksiness of a Gabby Hayes (without the six-shooter). Revel in the tough/tender combination that Elizabeth Young brings to the role of Clara, and the gradual evolution toward confidence in Clara-Liis Hillier’s sweet Bernice as she find her inner diva in a red dress. Poor Peter Liptak (Kanute) is the only unrepentant jerk in the show, but he still charms us with song and dance to balance his blustering Midwestern chauvinism.  The real sleeper is Matthew H. Curl, whose Aarvid is sort of a tentative but persistent Harold Hill – in fact, the show has been described as “Fargo meets The Music Man, without the blood or trombones.” Curl’s “My Smorgasbord of Love” is a real showstopper, and I salute his ability to deliver the song with a straight face.

Unique in my experience with Broadway Rose, Don’t Hug Me uses prerecorded music – more of a challenge for the vocalists, but definitely appropriate to a karaoke-themed musical. Bryan Boyd’s scenic design is delightfully evocative of the time and place, as are Annie Kaiser’s costumes.

Don’t Hug Me is pure schmaltz with a big dose of heart, and it provides a wonderful, if all too brief, refuge from the outside world. Broadway Rose is still checking for proof of vaccination or negative Covid test, so even if masking is now optional I felt quite comfortable joining the opening night audience. There are so many reasons to get your tickets and see this little gem – just do it! Tickets are going fast, especially for the coveted Mother’s Day/closing performance.

Don’t Hug Me is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, May 8th.


Twilight’s Enigmatic, Timely  Anatomy of Gray

The first time I saw playwright Jim Leonard’s Anatomy of Gray, in 2017, I was intrigued by the play’s multilayered approach but was ultimately able to peg it as a mysterious plague being used as an allegory about the AIDS epidemic. I enjoyed the play’s extensive use of humor to leaven the underlying pain, and harkened back to my emotional response to the early days of AIDS and its impact. However, seeing Twilight Theater Company’s 2022 production was a whole new experience for me. After some reflection I decided that the difference is rooted in my relationship to the two very different “plagues” that have colored my adult life. AIDS? Tragic, upsetting, but essentially separate from my everyday life. Covid-19, on the other hand, has been all too immediate for most of us, and we’ve been denied the dubious comfort of “otherness” about the victims. Even if you’ve seen Anatomy of Gray before, the current production merits a second look.

The show takes place in a slightly surreal world peopled by the nineteenth century townspeople of Gray, Indiana – a place emblematic of the close-minded but self-proclaimed salt of the earth communities that littered a country on the verge of, and fiercely resisting, a vast scientific awakening.  Fifteen year old June Muldoon, whose father suddenly died of a mysterious illness, is lamenting her totally boring life in this boring town; grieving about her father and hoping for a little action, she writes a letter to God asking him to send a doctor to town. A fierce storm arrives, and in blows balloonist Dr. Galen Gray, a beacon of enlightenment from the outside world (and a ray of hope for June).  The xenophobic Pastor Phineas Wingfield is suspicious of the newcomer – Gray is attractive, educated, and modern, but he’s Jewish. When locals begin to sicken and die from inexplicable deadly lesions, many follow the pastor’s lead and blame the newcomer. When lesions are discovered on June’s mom Rebekah, only three people are free of infection – June, Dr. Gray, and a love-struck, soda pop loving young yokel named Homer.  Take my word for it – courtesy of some very crisp writing and some great physical comedy, the show is both more moving and more fun than it sounds!

Director Alicia Turvin has assembled an evenly capable cast, with some real standout performances in lead roles.  As Homer, the simple farm boy who’s loony for June, Ryan Larson is perfectly pathetic, but he earns the audience’s sympathy with his earnest devotion. Arun Kumar is wonderful as the narrow-minded Pastor Wingfield, and he oozes the confidence that can only be found in the truly ignorant. His epic battle with kidney stones is the funniest scene in the play, and he maintains his steadfastly bombastic idiocy throughout.  

Three key actors provide the solid foundation required to tell the story. Noelle Guest is quietly compelling as the widowed Rebekah – she creates a solidly intelligent and grounded character who embraces the pain and love in her life with equal grace.  Cydoni Reyes is a real find as June, and Turvin was lucky to find an adult actor who manages to believably convey the angst, drama, and maddening mood swings of repressed adolescence. Reyes’ June is both precocious and innocent, and charming throughout. Finally, there’s Jon Gennari, who walks a fine line as Dr. Galen Gray, the quintessential outsider. While he is often funny, he never seems to be going for the laugh – he’s so somber, logical, and determined that the audience accepts the absurdity of the situation without question.

I loved the set – rather than trying to create even a semblance of small-town Indiana, Turvin’s design, a simple backdrop of silver/gray panels, allows the actors to easily break the fourth wall. The audience doesn’t need to worry about suspending disbelief, because as soon as Genevieve Larson’s beautifully designed lights go up we know that we are not expected to cling to an illusion of reality.

Twilight’s production of Anatomy of Gray is something of a sleeper. While it’s fun and moving in the moment, it doesn’t yield its full impact right away but grows its impact upon reflection – one of those shows that would be well worth seeing twice.

Anatomy of Gray is playing at Twilight’s Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through April 24th, with performances at 8 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 pm on Sunday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Don’t Miss Don’t Dress for Dinner

HART Theatre is back, roaring into the (somewhat) post-pandemic milieu with a nostalgic reprise. When HART moved into its current building in 2007, the first play staged was playwright Marc Camoletti’s broad French farce, Don’t Dress for Dinner, and the show was supposed to open March 20, 2020 as part of the Hillsboro company’s 25th season. As we all know, the advent of Covid-19 sent the theater world into two-year state of mostly suspended animation, and like many local stages HART is now picking up right where it left off – Don’t Dress for Dinner finally opened on March 18 to an enthusiastic audience who clearly felt that it was worth the wait!

First-time director Dawn Sellers has assembled a fine cast, including one veteran of the 2007 production – her husband Doug Sellers, who acted as both cheerleader and mentor as she tackled the challenging show. All six actors bring impressive resumes to the production, as do many members of the production team, and the result of Sellers’ direction and her support network is a charming play with great lighting, a clean and well-constructed set, period-appropriate costumes, and the comic timing, blocking, and restraint necessary for compelling farce.

For those of you who (like me) are not familiar with the play, a little background will help. Camoletti is best known for Boeing Boeing, which had a 7-year run in London starting in 1962 and has since become one of the defining farces of American professional and community theater. A sequel, Pyjama Pour Six, premiered in 1987, and was later adapted for English language audiences by Robin Hawdon as Don’t Dress for Dinner. The play retains its French setting, characters, and Gallic cultural themes – in particular, the stereotypical attitude toward marital fidelity or lack thereof.  The action starts quickly: Bernard has orchestrated a scheme that will allow him to spend the weekend with his mistress, Suzanne, at his country home near Paris. Wife Jacqueline is preparing to visit her ailing mother, and Bernard’s friend Robert is coming to provide an “alibi” for Bernard’s weekend activities, including the importation of a Cordon Bleu chef  (Suzette) to handle lavish meal preparation. When Suzanne learns that Robert is coming, she invents an excuse to stay home so she can spend time with him (Bernard does not know that Robert and Suzette are embroiled in a passionate affair). Bernard’s problem? How to explain Suzanne’s arrival to his wife. His solution? He tells Robert to pretend that Suzanne is his lover – something Robert is hesitant to do, since Suzanne will be upset that he is playing around with another woman. Robert reluctantly agrees, and plans to explain the scheme to Suzanne – but Suzette, the caterer, arrives first. Confused about the names, Robert enlists Suzette to play as his mistress. When Suzanne arrives, she is then cast into the role of caterer, despite her woeful inadequacy in the kitchen. Got that? If you need more, go see the show!

Each of the cast members shine in their own special way, but Doug Goodrum (Robert) really holds the show together. He is constantly tasked with explaining the unexplainable to other characters, a job complicated by the fact that he has to quickly adapt the story to fit each new arrival. He panics, stumbles over his words, and takes meaty pauses that are believably those of a befuddled sidekick (“you cooked a book?” is a frequent refrain), yet somehow keeps us clear on the tortuous path of farce.  Doug Sellers is relegated to the thankless role of a straight man, creating a convincingly odious Bernard.

Sarah Kearney’s “Suzette” is the unsophisticated rube in the room, yet you can see in her eyes and hear in her delivery the wily peasant street smarts that allow her to profit mightily from her role in the deception, and she provides fearless physical comedy.  Katie Prentiss (Suzanne) is appropriately lovely and convincingly clumsy and clueless as a chef – my front-row seat was startlingly close to the splash zone!  As the betrayed and betraying Jacqueline, Kira Smolev moves seamlessly from loving wife and daughter to passionate lover, yielding to confusion and finally smoldering fury as she gradually figures out what’s actually happening. The final character, Suzette’s husband George, is a smaller role that provides less opportunity for actor John Knowles – but he provides the slightly dim and threatening, hardheaded bulk that the part requires.

I applaud Sellers’ choice to skip the French accents – it’s awkward, and they are after all portraying characters speaking their native language. However, I did miss a Gallic touch in the set dressing. Other than the two small (and obligatory) pictures of a cow and a pig, there were no décor elements that suggested a French country villa, and this made it harder to relate to the players and situation as being specifically French. 

It’s been a tough couple of years for most of us, and there are still some pretty ominous winds blowing about. It’s a great time for a lively evening of comedy including lots of laugh out loud moments to give us a little respite from the stress and uncertainty of Covid, Putin, porch pirates, and a nationwide shortage of about 4,000,000 homes. HART’s Don’t Dress for Dinner is good medicine for the spirit with its complex story line full of uncomplicated fun.

Don’t Dress for Dinner is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, April 3, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.