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Jessica Boevers, Kyle Fabel, Chris Kipiniak in Private Fittings
(Photo © Ken Howard)
French farceur Georges Feydeau might have felt flummoxed if he had attended the opening night of Private Fittings in the La Jolla Playhouse's new Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. Feydeau's first full-length play, Tailleur Pour Dames, served as the basis for Mark O'Donnell's newly translated and adapted version. O'Donnell won a Tony Award for his work in adapting the John Waters film Hairspray to the stage and has built a strong reputation for his earlier work in adapting Feydeau and Molière. Gone is Feydeau's belle époque Paris, yielding to modern day La Jolla. Gone is a three-act farce, replaced by a 75-minute intermissionless speed race. The spittle flies as the valiant cast members dash through the dialogue to get to the finish line, but there is no prize waiting for them. What is so clearly missing from this production -- directed by the Playhouse's artistic director, Des McAnuff -- is style and fun. O'Donnell has replaced the original characters with caricatures.

Feydeau's doctor, Eric (Kyle Fabel), has become a "spiritual healing therapist." His servant and confidant, Steve (Eric Wippo) is now a bleached-blond surfer dude pool boy, while Harriet (Joan Van Ark), his monster of a mother-in-law, has been turned into a best-selling, self-help empowerment person. Eric spends his evenings attending such charity events as the Cancer Luau and the Lupus Rally in the hopes of seducing his new patient, Suzanne (Jessica Boevers), who has never strayed before and is sort of interested in doing so. Eric's naïve young wife of six months, Yvonne (Stana Katic), already convinced they should sleep in separate bedrooms, has become suspicious of her husband's nightly disappearances and has called in her mother Harriet for marital advice. Eric's boring best friend, Drew (Chris Hoch), is peddling rundown condos and leases one to Eric for his rendezvous with Suzanne. On the day in question, they all show up at Eric's and Yvonne's lovely, well-appointed home (Neil Patel's scenic design is the production's finest asset) along with Suzanne's jealous, muscular ex-Navy SEAL/health club owner husband Conan (Chris Kipiniak) and his mistress, Rosa (Lucia Brawley). The usual farcical elements of mistaken identities and lies built upon lies propel the play to the inevitable happy ending.

Maybe it's because Southern California's penchant for self-help gurus and laid-back surfer types has been parodied so often that O'Donnell's take, adding nothing new, feels stale. He even stoops to having characters mistake Harriet for the actress Joan Van Ark, who is actually playing the role of Harriet. When Eric is nearly caught in the act with Suzanne by her husband in the former workshop of a fashion designer, Eric suddenly becomes a flaming queen of a stylist. There is not much invention in O'Donnell's writing.

McAnuff directs at a manic pace and his cast bravely barrels through for 75 hectic minutes, but laughter, subtlety, and joy are the casualties. Even the usual fast exits and entrances in and out of slamming doors don't work well here since the doors are on opposite ends of the very long playing space. McAnuff's most inspired moments come during the set changes between acts, when the stage crew members rollerblade their way around removing furniture and props. Broadway's Boevers even gets to sing while skating her way around the stage during the second break, as if she were Olivia Newton John in Xanadu. Now, there was a disastrous adaptation that at least inspired some laughs, even if they were groaners; Private Fittings seems to be too much of an in-joke. The opening night audience, filled with friends and staffers, laughed at times but not very heartily.

Farce requires just the right blend of pacing and panache; this production calls to mind the Indianapolis 500. On the plus side, Patel's sets and Paul Tazewell's costumes are stylish. The talented cast can't be faulted for following the director's lead and rushing through their dialogue as if being pursued by a runaway freight train but, as a result, they never really establish their characters and the audience has no real attachment to them. Each becomes just another prop, like the blender or the mannequin -- good for a sight gag but not much more.

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