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Onstage - Cabaret Circus & Comedy

 

Un Fil à la Patte

feydeau, un fil a la patte, comedie francaise

French playwright Georges Feydeau specialized in a certain kind of humor that not everyone finds funny. Photo: Brigitte Enguérand

A funny thing, humor. Either you get it or you don’t. Any amount of explanation or learned commentary is to no avail if you don’t laughlaugh at first sight ...

feydeau, un fil a la patte, comedie francaise

French playwright Georges Feydeau specialized in a certain kind of humor that not everyone finds funny. Photo: Brigitte Enguérand

A funny thing, humor. Either you get it or you don’t. Any amount of explanation or learned commentary is to no avail if you don’t laugh at first sight.

Georges Feydeau wrote plays that are the archetype of a certain type of humor the French love, epitomized by the vaudeville “farce,” broad comedy based on situations so outrageous you just have to laugh. Think of actors making closely timed exits through doors and hiding in wardrobes to avoid discovery. Sex and double dealing are also basic parts of the comic mix.

The Feydeau phenomenon does not get any more authentic than in the three-act Un Fil à la Patte, expertly directed by Jérome Deschamps at the Comédie Française.

The story is simple. The main character is a certain Bois d’Enghien, played by Hervé Pierre, who must dump his mistress, successful café singer Lucette (Florence Viallam), so he can marry the young inheritrix Viviane (Georgia Scallet). A large-ish cast of secondary characters helps to spin out the plot.

Alas, Feydeau-style humor leaves me cold. This probably speaks volumes about me rather than about the playwright, who is still packing them into the theater more than a hundred years later (Fil was first staged in 1894).

I just fail to see the comedy in a spineless character who lies to string his girlfriend and fiancée along so he can sign a wedding contract that will make his fortune. Bois d’Enghien has to twist himself in knots – actually ducking through doors and hiding in that wardrobe – to get the laughs.

Other Feydeau comic touches the audience appreciated: a very fat man with bad breath called Fontanet (Serge Bagdassarian) and a weirdly twitchy character, Bouzin (Christian Hecq). One of Fontanet’s lines is a pun in which he unwittingly acknowledges his halitosis. Asked “Comment fîtes-vous?” he answers “Comme je pus !” Hilarious halitosis? A pathetic paronomasia. The other characters onstage cracked up at the linguistic blunder, but how obvious, how tedious. Yes, bad breath is funny. Hmm, or maybe not.

The Bouzin character, basically an extended visual gag, helps explain why the slapstick of Jerry Lewis and Benny Hill enjoyed such popularity in France.

Not all the humor is visual, however. Feydeau shows he has an ear: apart from the fat man’s “I smell” (hahaha geddit?) line, he also plays on the hard C, soft C pedal in pronunciation (skeptic, scandal) to drum up laughs. Unfortunately, he has to rely on a foreign character, a South American general (Thierry Hancisse) with a heavy Spanish accent for the cheap laughs.

Isn’t it funny how people talk? Like the Ch’tis in the north of France? Actually no, I don’t think it’s that funny to ridicule the way people talk.

And there is much tiresome shouting on stage to get the laughs, to the point where I was ready to stand up and shout back, “Shut up! I’m trying to sleep back here.”

A few lines did draw a smile, among them, “Sometimes a man needs to be alone,” which was also used by Tom Selleck in the film Three Men and a Little Lady, the sequel to the Hollywood remake of Three Men and a Baby. And yes, I found Three Men and a Little Lady delightfully funny – something to do with the characters and their lines.

Fil has made it into film no fewer than three times, most recently in 2005, with Emmanuelle Beart as Lucette and Charles Berling as the cowardly d’Enghien.

The phrase fil à la patte refers to the string used to tie down a bird or some other creature and by extension refers to a lack of freedom. I felt Feydeau’s humor dragging like a chain around my neck.

As one would expect from the Comédie Française, the production values are impeccable, especially the costumes.

Pierre Tran

Comédie Française: Place Colette, 75001 Paris. Métro: Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre or Pyramides. Tel.: 08 25 10 16 80 or 01 44 58 14 00. Un Fil à la Patte: through June 18. Tickets: €8-€39. www.comedie-francaise.fr

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