This 1886 update isn't a perfect fit

By Anne Marie Welsh

March 1, 2005

Drew (Chris Hoch) tries to rouse his runaway wife, Rosa (Lucia Brawley); she's fainted because he's found her in Mark O'Donnell's adaptation of the Feydeau farce, "Private Fittings," at the new Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse.
Georges Feydeau said he chose subjects that would make an undertaker shiver. Any shivers emanating from Sunday's La Jolla Playhouse opening of Mark O'Donnell's San Diego-set update of Feydeau's "Private Fittings" were shivers of recognition.

Written early in his career, the little 1886 vaudeville of marital discord involves devious egos trapped in their own lies. While his characters try to extricate themselves, the playwright deftly mocks their middle-class pretensions, their vanity, hypocrisy, and in this update, celebrity-mad materialism. As the opener to the theater's new Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, the show gently nips the hands that feed it.

Like Feydeau's most produced play, "A Flea in Her Ear" (1907), "Private Fittings" begins as a comedy of manners introducing us to the well-heeled household – and the pricey kitchen appliances – of Eric and Yvonne. Six months into their marriage, they're in separate bedrooms, and in trouble.

Eric's a quack doctor (aka a "spiritual healing therapist") with an office attached to their soaring modernist house (design by Neil Patel). Replacing the outspoken servant of Feydeau's original is a surfer dude named Steve who serves as the quack's personal assistant and pool boy.

Eric (Kyle Fabel) ministers to the idle nouveau riche who fill their evenings with such events as the Cancer Luau and the Lupus Rally. He's been trying (unsuccessfully) to bed his hot young patient, Suzanne (Jessica Boevers). Through his dull, sincere friend, Drew (Chris Hoch, the show's best running gag and a case of "single personality deficit"), he rents a moldy condo in P.B., where a fashion designer once lived. There, because of a broken door, Suzanne's murderous former-Navy SEAL husband Conan interrupts the tryst.

As in Feydeau, the quack now poses as her fey designer. That's level one. Drew also has a wife missing in action. His Rosa (Lucia Brawley, warmest of the ladies), it turns out, is Conan's mistress – and we learn, a woman with a past. Though Des McAnuff's production is more strenuous, it's no swifter than your usual Feydeau, in part because the farce-requisite doors are here placed at the far ends of the new space, thus slowing the door-slamming action.

O'Donnell won a Tony for his warmly hilarious book for the "Hairspray" musical, directed by the Old Globe's Jack O'Brien. Before that, he was a comic novelist, "Saturday Night Live" writer, and a translator and adapter of plays by Molière and Feydeau.

What's remarkable about O'Donnell's adaptation is how smoothly he translates the action involving three cheating couples, the dudical, and a mother-in-law from hell (Joan van Ark as Harriet, still "Dallas"-fabulous in spike heels and spiked hairdo) to the here and now.

O'Donnell's best lines stick because they dare to speak the heretofore unspeakable about ranch-and-coast life: "She's a docent in her own beautiful home," he writes of Rosa, whomwe later learn is a hooker who has reinvented herself. Aside from the machinelike precision of Feydeau's physical action, the play's intellectual high jinks involve who knows what about which lie, and when. Here again, O'Donnell usually scores.

Less effective than the satiric updates are the show's break-the-illusion moments when Drew turns to the audience for help, or Conan mistakes Harriet for the real Joan van Ark. These seem desperate, postmod solutions to the plot transitions that Feydeau engineered.

Some of McAnuff's solutions to the challenge of staging farce in such an open space work better than others. Actors and stagehands roller blade about, quickly changing props and scenery. They call to mind Annie Weisman's "Be Aggressive," a fresh Playhouse comedy more deeply rooted than this one in SoCal coastal culture. Eric Wippo's smoked and stoked Steve, especially, has an easy grace on wheels that's a weirdly familiar pleasure.

"Private Fittings" was warmly, though not ecstatically received on Sunday. Perhaps its satiric spirit ruffled a few feathers. But more likely, McAnuff's staging (and Fabel's manic performance) too often veered uncomfortably close to being out of control.

Playwright: Mark O'Donnell, translated and adapted from Georges Feydeau. Director: Des McAnuff. Set: Neil Patel. Costumes: Paul Tazewell. Lighting: Howell Binkley. Music: Michael Friedman. Movement: Charlie Oates. Choreography: Kelly Devine. Cast: Jessica Boevers, Lucia Brawley, Kyle Fabel, Chris Hoch, Stana Katic, Chris Kipiniak, Joan van Ark, Eric Wippo.