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All in the Family 

In this French farce, people get kicked, inebriated, and nearly shot; in short, it's a riot

Wednesday, Dec 26 2001
Georges Feydeau, like Oscar Wilde, anticipated low commercial sitcoms with witty farces that gave la belle époque some of its tawdry glitter. Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest are turn-of-the-century masterpieces, but they're masterpieces of a light, look-at-the-funny-bourgeois style that has become so common on TV it's almost surprising to find it on a stage. "Why didn't I just stay home," you catch yourself thinking partway through Flea, "and get drunk watching old Love Boat episodes?" But then the second act ends, and the young Camille, who speaks entirely in vowel sounds, is swinging from a chandelier, while the revolving bed with four people in it spins like a merry-go-round, and the Prussian in a feathered parade helmet flaunts a gun, and the respectable Monsieur Chandebise gets kicked around by the sadistic hotelier -- and you remember that they don't write sitcoms like this anymore.

The San Jose Rep closed the year 2000 with a boring musical farce, Enter the Guardsman, which happened to follow the same pattern as A Flea in Her Ear -- a suspicious spouse invents a trick to see if his wife (or her husband) is faithful. Guardsman takes place in Vienna during the same époque as Flea, a coincidence the current costume designer hasn't missed: I think I recognize that Prussian uniform. But Flea is miles better. It's a perfectly woven tangle of double-crossings and -entendres that ends, like all Feydeau plays, without a single fornication.

Madame Chandebise thinks her husband is fooling around. With the help of a Spanish lady-friend she sends an anonymous love letter inviting Monsieur Chandebise to a shabby hotel, the Coq d'Or, for a rendezvous. If he shows up, she reasons, he's unfaithful; if not, the marriage is safe. Half a dozen people misinterpret the letter en route -- especially the Spanish lady's husband -- and a porter at the Coq d'Or happens to look exactly like Monsieur Chandebise. In the resulting complications people get kicked, treated for delirium, inebriated, and nearly shot.

The play takes 2 1/2 hours, with two intermissions. It moves from the classical, marble-columned Chandebise drawing room to the seedy, red-wallpapered hotel and then back. Scott Weldin has done a flawless job with the sets: The spiral staircase and revolving bed make an especially clever symmetry in the hotel. Dan Hiatt's central performance as both Monsieur Chandebise and Poche, the look-alike porter, is another clever symmetry, made stronger by the fact that Hiatt brings lively detail to the roles. It would be easy, in a farce, to distinguish Poche from Chandebise with a few master-servant mannerisms, but Hiatt gives each character a rounded, vulnerable personality. Chandebise is proud and suave, but nervous, and a little baffled by his wife; Poche is a louche and slouching alcohol sponge with a canny, rumbling laugh.

John Altieri is also funny as Camille, the Chandebise nephew who needs an artificial palate to speak his consonants clearly; John Robb in the minor but colorful role of Baptistin (a drunk lurking in the Coq d'Or with a diminishing bottle of vermouth) is hilarious. Other actors, especially Howard Swain as Dr. Finache and Elaina Erika Davis as Madame Chandebise, have a weaker instinct for farce, and can't seem to find the clownishness Feydeau demands.

The actor who charges the show with real farcical energy is Remi Sandri, as the jealous Spaniard. Sandri, with his lank, tall frame and bald pate, staggers around in a comic agony of love like a dancing broom in Fantasia. Unfortunately, his stint as the Spaniard ended Dec. 19; by the time you read this, J. Michael Flynn will have taken over for the rest of the run. Flynn might be better, for all I know, but it's hard to see how.

Since Feydeau wrote farces long before "politically correct" was even an idea (much less an overused term), he made racial jokes. The hotheaded Spaniard and the feathered, babbling Prussian played right into French prejudices in 1907. Director John McCluggage has countered these funny stereotypes by cross-casting a few of the roles. The casting makes no difference; the African-American Karole Foreman and Japanese Stan Egi both do solid work (as the Spanish lady and the French hotelier, respectively). It's just interesting to see the racial politics of one fin de siècle overlaid with those of another. Feydeau would turn in his grave, I think; but then, Feydeau died insane.


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