Review: ‘Flea’ farce at Westport Playhouse

John Resenhouse and Robert Adelman Hancock in “A Flea in Her Ear,” a new version of Georges Feydeau’s farce, written by David Ives, directed by Mark Lamos, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through July 28.

In a co-production with the Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware, the Westport Playhouse and Artistic Director Mark Lamos are presenting George Feydeau’s turn-of-the-20th-century French farce, “A Flea in Her Ear”. Lamos directed the production last March in Delaware and most of his company has now relocated in Westport in a new adaptation of the classic by American playwright David Ives.

“A Flea in Her Ear” refers to the suspicions of infidelity that Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin, a delight) has about her husband, Victor (Lee. E. Ernst). Desperate to know the truth, she comes up with a complicated plan to catch him in the act of in flagrante delicto. To this end, she enlists her friend, Lucienne (Antoinette Robinson), to pen an anonymous love letter to Victor enticing him to meet her at the local brothel. The basic plot in place, the farce check-off list begins: Slamming doors? Check. Scantily clad actors? Check. Mistaken identities? Check. Uproarious laughter? Well, not quite. At three acts with a running time of two hours and 40 minutes (including two intermissions), this is one farce that actually gets less funny the longer it continues.

To my surprise, it was actually the comedy’s first act that proved to be its strongest. Since act one is basically all exposition, Lamos deserves credit for delivering a lot of information so smoothly and with such energy. Unfortunately, the cast gets the memo to kick it into higher gear for each of the remaining two acts so what we witness are actors trying very, very hard to be funny. We see them overly anxious to please and we also see them sweat, a big no-no in light farces like “A Flea in Her Ear”. All the door slamming and careening around stage in and out of clothing eventually becomes more exhausting than exhilarating, more frantic than funny.

Lamos has some game and lively actors in his company, however. Both Heflin and Robinson, clad in costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti’s gorgeous 1900 Paris frocks, are as funny and agile as they are allowed to be and Mic Matarrese, as Victor’s luckless younger brother, has some fairly hilarious scenes as a man born without a pallet and unable to pronounce consonants. Still, as talented as many of them are, all the actors tend to get more desperate for laughs the longer they are on stage. They don’t seem to trust the material and thus bend themselves into pretzels attempting to add comic bits of business with broad funny faces and exasperated grimaces. It is truly wearying.

Mark Lamos’ design team has delivered a glorious package that, in addition to that sumptuous period costuming, includes two lavish settings by Kristen Robinson and spot-on lighting (Matthew Richards) that bathes everything and everyone in a warm glow. In truth, there is plenty on the Westport stage that will no doubt please many looking to laugh this month. I am just not one of them.

“A Flea in Her Ear” continues at the Westport Playhouse through July 28. For further information or tickets reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.