At the end of the 19th century, the theater provided a safe place to mock the cavernous gap between public ideals of morality and private practices. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) deliciously satirized Victorian England’s hypocrisy. But his play’s barbs seem gentle compared to the acid plume of Frenchman Georges Feydeau (1862-1921). The prolific master of Belle Époque farce penned 39 works for the stage. Where Wilde relies on arch innuendo, however, Feydeau gets surprisingly down and dirty. Marriage, morals, manners — he skewers social institutions with glee.
Unadilla’s current production of A Little Hotel on the Side (1896) captures Feydeau’s saucy spirit. Director Tom Blachly uses British writer John Mortimer’s 1984 translation, and the language feels feisty and fresh. It’s a long play, with three acts, two dozen characters and more plot contortions than a marathon game of Twister. Character- and coincidence-packed Act II drags somewhat, but Blachly and the stellar lead actors keep up a perky pace in Acts I and III. Belly laughs abound as the racy dialogue and antics unfold.
The story centers on two couples who live next door to each other, the Pinglets and Paillardins. Mr. Pinglet, a building contractor, covets his neighbor’s wife. Mme. Paillardin doesn’t particularly fancy the randy older man, but she’s determined to teach her disinterested husband a lesson. She thinks an affair might stimulate his ardor.
Prudish Mme. Pinglet must spend the night away from home, tending to her sick sister. And Mr. Paillardin, an architect, must also overnight elsewhere, at the Free Trade Hotel, where a client wants him to investigate mysterious noises caused by a possible structural problem. Voilà! The would-be lovers have found a time to tryst. Of course, they end up at the same hotel as Mr. Paillardin, where the Paillardins’ nephew and Pinglets’ maid also rendezvous. Staying there, too, is the Pinglets’ friend from Dieppe, whom they declined as a houseguest when they realized he’d brought along four daughters.
So the assignation mission becomes difficult to accomplish. Mistaken-identity mishaps and door-slamming mayhem ensue at the disreputable digs. A raid by the Department of Public Morality caps the nightmarish nuit. In the morning, the couples try to salvage their marriages from the mess. Prodigious lying might just save the day.
At Unadilla, the lead quartet of actors sparkles. Bringing the marital meltdowns to life with mischievous zest are David Klein and Nancy Ellen as the Pinglets, with Ron Lay-Sleeper and Christina Ducharme as the Paillardins. Each portrait is slightly over the top, befitting the broadness of farce.
Klein excels as Mr. Pinglet. The lovable lecher’s eager libido enlivens the double-entendre-laden dialogue. Klein uses Pinglet’s sly sotto voce asides to enlist the audience in his character’s conspiracies. He demonstrates the contractor’s emotional excesses vividly, his face reddening with rage when Pinglet’s frustration explodes.
Ducharme makes Mme. Paillardin a neurotic blend of charm and cluelessness. She portrays her with the pouty exaggeration of a silent movie’s damsel in distress: pursed lips, upturned eyes, heaving breast, hands clutched around a handkerchief. She paces and frets, while remaining impeccably dressed, coiffed and bejeweled. Ducharme and Klein work beautifully together, and their chemistry fuels the production’s success.
Ellen’s Mme. Pinglet could out-prude a Puritan. She intones her character’s pieties in a high-pitched voice, scrunching her face in a permanent scowl. Ellen deftly plays the shock, judgment and condescension that make Madame an über-sober foil to the high jinks surrounding her. Lay-Sleeper’s Mr. Paillardin rounds out the lead foursome ably. He shows how the restrained architect’s encounter with hotel “ghosts” unhinges him, gesticulating wildly as he recounts the night.
Even this tight ensemble occasionally trips over the rapid repartee during the play’s two-and-a-half-hour running time. The stumbles only slow the action in Act II, however, because the principal performers consistently maintain the vivacious atmosphere that keeps the Feydeau flowing.
The secondary roles feature many terrific performances. Bob Belenky makes hotel manager Bastien unforgettable. His wide eyes gleam with creepy charisma: Vincent Price meets Riff-Raff, Dr. Frank N. Furter’s butler in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Julian Kasow embodies uptight, bespectacled nephew Maxime perfectly. He maintains his character’s prim demeanor reading aloud from Descartes’ “Treatise on the Passions,” while the sexy maid, Victoire (Kate Harrington), tries to seduce him. Kasow and Harrington turn the scene into a clever tennis match of theory versus practice. Also delightful are the actresses who play the unwanted houseguest’s young daughters: Kassandra, Maddy and Gala Morse, and Cypress Ellen. Brightly dressed in straw hats and blue plaid — like the heroine of the children’s book Madeline — they light up the stage with sunny energy while executing their lines with aplomb.
As usual at Unadilla, costuming, lighting, sets and props represent a collaborative effort: The credit goes to artistic director Bill Blachly and his partner Ann O’Brien, with assistance from the show’s director and cast. All the production elements for A Little Hotel support the storytelling well, especially the elegant costumes (pulled from stock on hand, bolstered by a few rentals) and fanciful faux painting of the set walls.
Feydeau’s work is not well known to American audiences today. But his scathing take on many topics feels remarkably fresh: how men and women endlessly spar, how the truth often seems so elusive. As the French say, Plus ça change ... The more things change. You know the rest.
A Little Hotel on the Side, directed by Tom Blachly.
Unadilla Theatre, East Calais. July 17, 21, 23, 28, 30 & 31; August 2 & 6, 7:30 p.m. $20. Info, 456-8968.