If the Guinness Book of World Records kept a reckoning of Most Plot Complications Simultaneously Juggled by a Playwright, Georges Feydeau would win hands down-if not for "A Flea in Her Ear," then for one of the dozens of other farces he churned out from the 1880s until his death in 1921.
Kenneth Tynan once called Feydeau "the greatest master of French comedy after Moliere." Last night's audience at the Eisenhower Theater was in no mood for rating; they were too busy laughing.
Unshackled from the burden of memorializing "the Romantic Epoch," the Comedie Francaise transported the viewers to a period of far lower purpose, and it was a transport of delight. Sure, last week's Victor Hugo swashbuckler was an interesting meuseum piece, but one trip to the museum is enough for so short a visit.
With "Flea" and "The Misanthrope" (opening Friday), the Comedie is doing what it does best-comedy. And if that combination of plays doesn't add up to the grandest gift the French have ever sent to these shores, it certainly ranks right up there alongside Lafayette, the Statue of Liberty and Perrier water.
To have a "flea in one's ear" means to be jealous-to suspect a spouse of infidelity. The first flea lands in the ear of Raymonde Chandebise, who suspects her businessman husband because he has been giving her an uncharacteristically cold shoulder for a month now.
To verify her suspicions, Raymonde enlists the help of her friend Lucienne, who suggests sending M. Chandebise a letter (on perfumed mauve stationery) from any anonymous "admirer," proposing a rendezvous. Lucienne herself writes the letter, which concludes in high style: "I'm ready to commit a folly. Will you join me?"
The homely M. Chandebise decides, however, that the letter must have been meant for his handsome bachelor friend Tournel, and sends Tournel off to the notorious Hotel Minet Galante in his stead.
But Chandebise finds the idea of such a letter so exhilarating that he can't resist showing it to his South American business colleague, Homenides, who happens to be the husband of the women who wrote the note. Recognizing the handwriting, the hot-headed Homenides goes into a rage that has him threatening to shoot virtually everyone in sight for the next act and a half.
Among the unnumerable subplots, the wildest involves Chandebise's nephew and secretary, Camille, who has a speech defect that keeps him from pronouncing consonants. At first, Camille spins out long and elegant speeches-composed exclusively of vowels-and seems utterly baffled when people fail to understand him.
Is a cleft palate funny? Well, this one is. George Meredith once suggested that a truly comic disability must be curable. Perhaps that's why, after Camille's introduction, Feydeau provides him with an artificial palate (made of silver) that enables him to speak perfectly-until, of course, he loses it.
Camille is funny, also, because of the extravagantly disciplined performance of Michel Duchassoy-just one of the fine comic turns rendered for "Flea" by the Comedie ensemble.
Alain Pralon, who spiced up "Ruy Blas" as Don Cesar, is wonderfully over-eager here as Tournel, the renowned lady-killer who once drove a woman (or so he believes) to attempt suicide by consuming a bowl of poisonous mussels. And Georges Descrieres, with painted eyebrows worthy of Carmen Miranda, puffs himself up into a properly preposterous fury as the Latin buffoon, Homenides, who told his wife on their wedding night he would shoot any man who ever dared make love to her.
When these characters and their compatriots all descend on the same shady hotel for Act Two, the comedy files so fast and furiously that if the Kennedy Center were any less sobering an institution, the audience might literally roll in the aisles. Feydeau may have had no very profound purpose up his sleeve, but in keeping so many stories speeding hilariously forward, he pulled off a technical feat that does not make Tynan's assessment of him seem utterly out of the question.
Between the first and second acts of "A Flea in Her Ear," a vast scenery change is accomplished. There is no intermission here, presumably so the company can wow the audience with their ability to usher one magnificient set out and another in in a matter of scarce minutes.
They succeeded. Wow.
LA PUCE A L'OREILLE (A FLEA IN HER EAR), by Georges Feydeau. Directed by Jean-Laurent Cochet; costumes designed by Rosine Delamare, scenery by Georges Wakhevitch; presented by the Comedie Francaise.
With Jean LePoulain, Guy Michel, Alain Pralon, Michel Duchussoy and Michel Aumont, Paule Noelle and Alberte Aveline.
At the Eisenhower Theater through Thursday.