How do you dump your mistress when you’re about to marry another woman?
That’s the dilemma faced by Bois-d’Enghien, the bon vivant and hero of Georges Feydeau’s farce “Un Fil a la Patte,” or Tied by the Leg, the latest triumph at the Comedie-Francaise.
It’s the funniest show in Paris.
Feydeau (1862-1921) was a forerunner of what we now call situation comedy. The success of his 40 or so plays depends on unexpected, often catastrophic situations, not on clever dialogue or witty punch lines.
The starting point, in most cases, is extramarital lust. A husband deceives his wife, a wife deceives her husband, a mistress deceives or is deceived.
To cover up their deception, the protagonists go to greater and greater lengths to avoid being found out until the confusion is total and the web of lies collapses.
Feydeau is a master of fast-paced, complex plots often bordering on lunacy. With good reason, he has been likened to a mad watchmaker. Incidentally, he spent the last two years of his life in an institution.
In “Un Fil a la Patte,” which has been performed in English-speaking countries under various titles including “Get Out of My Hair” or “Cat Among the Pigeons,” Bois-d’Enghien doesn’t have the courage to tell his mistress, the cabaret singer Lucette, that he’s going to marry an upper-class girl.
He spends a good deal of Act I grabbing Le Figaro from Lucette’s friends who all arrive with the newspaper because of a laudatory review of her last concert. Unfortunately, the same issue also announces his marriage.
Naturally, the baroness, Bois-d’Enghien’s future mother-in-law, hires Lucette to sing at the wedding. When Lucette finds out who the bridegroom is she tricks him into a compromising situation, and the scandalized baroness calls off the marriage.
Viviane, the bride, on the other hand, is thrilled to find out that her fiance is not the innocent and chaste type he pretended to be. Once she has discovered his past she falls madly in love with him and eventually gets him to the altar.
These four characters are surrounded by a dozen others including Bouzin, a hopeless songwriter, who is constantly taken for somebody else and chased by General Irrigua, a violent and jealous Latin American, and Fontanet, a gentleman afflicted with bad breath.
It took the Comedie-Francaise 20 years after Feydeau’s death to stage one of his plays. Some critics felt his light fare was unworthy of the august theatrical institution. Nobody believes that anymore. Feydeau has become a classic.
The biggest mistake a director can make in staging Feydeau’s farces is to present the characters as funny people. We laugh only when they take themselves seriously.
Jerome Deschamps, who also is the director of the Opera Comique, has understood this. He has modeled his production after the legendary staging by Jacques Charon at the Comedie-Francaise that traveled in 1962 to London and in 1966 to New York. (A DVD of that staging is for sale at the theater.)
The leading quartet -- Herve Pierre (Bois-d’Enghien), Florence Viala (Lucette), Dominique Constanza (Baroness) and Georgia Scalliet (Viviane) -- might not be quite on the exalted level of their predecessors half a century ago. Yet they are great fun to watch.
Christian Hecq’s over-the-top Bouzin is too much of a good thing. That seems to be a minority view. On opening night, his antics were greeted with uproarious laughter.
The Belle Epoque sets (Laurent Peduzzi) and costumes (Vanessa Sannino) are sumptuous.
“Un Fil a la Patte” is in repertory through June 18. Information: http://www.comedie-francaise.fr or (from France only) 08-2510-1680.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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