Three years after leaving its storefront on University Avenue, Gremlin Theatre has a lovely new 120-seat space in St. Paul’s renovated Vandalia Tower, next door to Lake Monster Brewery. To celebrate, it is remounting “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” the frothy confection that launched the theater 19 years ago.
“Don’t Dress for Dinner” is a layer cake of dalliances and deceptions written by Marc Camoletti (“Boeing-Boeing”) and adapted by Robin Hawdon. Like any French bedroom farce worth its salt, the trick is to keep this airy structure from collapsing on itself.
As the play opens, Bernard (Peter Christian Hansen) is anxiously hustling his wife, Jacqueline (Melanie Wehrmacher), out the door for a visit with her mother because he’s planned a weekend tryst with his mistress (Sierra Schermerhorn). What he doesn’t know is that Jacqueline is having an affair of her own with his best friend Robert (Grant Henderson). Through a series of improbable twists, all four end up spending the evening together, along with a hapless hired chef inextricably tangled up in their various ploys.
Director Brian Balcom and a competent cast keep this piece of nonsense mostly aloft. Hansen’s Bernard is a charming cad with an inexhaustible skill for improvisation. He balances Bernard’s increasingly frenetic schemes with a buoyant confidence. He is well complemented by Henderson as the hapless Robert. Henderson’s versatile range of facial expressions, command of the comic double take and general air of desperation provide some of the evening’s most hilarious highlights.
Maeve Moynihan is another standout, as Suzette, the chef who manages to turn a nonsensical situation to her own advantage. Sporting a nasally Brooklyn accent and a big dollop of attitude, Moynihan has infectious fun with this role. Wehrmacher and Schermerhorn also provide solid if less flashy work.
Despite an able cast, crisp pacing and a beguiling mix of physical and verbal gymnastics, this production does face some obstacles. The first act’s hilarious piling on of deceptions starts to feel a little repetitious by the second, as though Camoletti is floundering for a conclusion. Also, this production moves the play from the 1960s to the present day, a problematic choice that creates some jarring moments in terms of diction, mores and attitudes.
Despite its flaws, this production offers plenty of naughty fun and promises good things to come for Gremlin in its new home.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.