In Paradise Hotel, a classic farce by the master of the genre, Georges Feydeau, co-authored by Maurice Desvallieres. A successful engineer seeks to seduce the wife of his business partner, who has been neglected by her husband. Through a series of coincidences, they end up in the low-rent Paradise Hotel, along with the business partner, a nephew, the maid, and a visiting friend with four daughters. Pandemonium and hilarity follow. The execution:
In farce, pace is the thing, and amusing reactions, and a gifted cast that reveals the foibles of humanity while making you love and root for disreputable behavior. All this is present, and more, and even the handsome set of an upper-class Parisian home has doors to slam, entries to be locked, and an escape ladder off the terrace. And when the set changes to the hotel, it has the expected seedy charm and garish, Moroccan colors, and serves adroitly to show us fully Rooms 10 and 22, and the entrance to Room 9.
From the start, it becomes clear that we have entered the world of genius. The lascivious engineer, Benoit Pinglet, is portrayed by Matt Severyn, in a performance that is dazzling. He is bursting with joie de vivre, wonderful body language, an endearing leer, and an inventive, quick-witted mind filled with schemes and deceits, all hurled like javelins at our funny-bone, and landing. His walk is an echo of Groucho Marx though not an imitation, and can be varied to a skip, or a leap, sometimes into a chair that collapses or a settee that upends to spill him on the floor. It is a compelling performance, unfailingly funny, and Severyn etches a vivid portrait of a man aching with desire who will stop at nothing to satisfy it.
The other actors deliver strongly as well. The object of Pinglet's lust is Marcelle Paillardin, and Sarah Cortez is slender and beautiful and captures just the right note of a neglected woman anxious for affection but hesitant in betraying her matrimonial bonds. Pinglet's wife Angelique is required to be the heavy, a dominating woman, and as played by Shelby Blocker we see why, after 22 years of marriage, Pinglet is searching for romance. She towers over Pinglet, seemingly twice his size, and the visual gag works beautifully. She breathes the enthusiasm and power of self-centered assurance into her performance.
Marcelle's husband, Henri Paillardin, is portrayed by Miguel Angel Garcia, and he is excellent indeed, capturing the diffidence of a man not really into sex, and with an air of self-righteous propriety.
The supporting cast is large and talented. Especially good is Jason Ronje as Matthieu, a visitor from Marseille who stutters when it rains, a crucial plot point, and wears a checked suit that looks as ugly as intended - he captures the innocence of a rube caught in the web of chicanery that is Paris.
And Saurabh Pande as a bellboy has a deadpan look and comic timing that gets every laugh he's entitled to, with a few more thrown in. Kirk Ellis as the hotel manager is vivacious and effective but I wondered if there might not be even more relish to the role. Also excellent in important roles are Michaela Heidemann as the maid, Zachary Leonard as Paillardin's nephew, and Philip Orazio as a Police Inspector.
The second indication of genius is the script. It is a farce, yes, but it is also a closely-plotted one, with later events closely interlinked with earlier goings-on, and paying off in an exciting, building climactic scene where things are wrapped-up, not in a sitcom tidy package, but instead in a series of carefully-wrought twists and surprises that astonish and delight. The hand of a master is evident.
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And the third element of genius is the direction, by Gus Kaikkonen, a frequent guest director at UH. There is a laugh, or several, every minute and there is unflagging energy, amusing and strongly drawn characterizations, and split-second timing - poor Pinglet has a door slammed into his nose more times than I care to count - all working to perfection. And instinct says that Kaikkonen had a hand in eliciting the superb and wondrous performance from Severyn as Pinglet. The attractive set is designed by Matt Plamp, and the large production staff contributed enormously to the brilliant success of the event.
This farce is a work of genius by a brilliant playwright, directed superbly by a proven master in an hilarious tour-de-force, and replete with top-drawer acting, topped off by Matt Severyn in a breathtaking performance that will linger long in memory. It's must-see theater, and the word-of-mouth may spread like wildfire - get your tickets early, for the run is brief.
Paradise Hotel continues through March 3 at the Wortham Theatre, 133 Wortham, University of Houston. For ticketing or information, call 713-743-2929 or contact www.uh.edu/class/theatre-and-dance.