by Mark Blankenship May 2012
Ben Daniels rides the rhythm of “Don’t Dress for Dinner”
When you’re watching a farce, you don’t have to pretend the show is real. There’s enormous pleasure in discovering how the show is built—in seeing this mistaken identity lead to that bit of dialogue, which makes this character scream that line before running through the door. As the plot clicks into place, you can savor the purring of the comic engine.
To make the engine run, actors pull double duty. On one hand, they play “the truth” of every scene, communicating why their characters make certain choices. On the other, they manipulate the rhythm of the comedy until it flows with the audience’s response.
Ben Daniels has been learning these tricks in Don’t Dress for Dinner, the Roundabout’s revival of Marc Camoletti’s frothy sex comedy, now at the American Airlines Theatre. Typically, Daniels plays serious roles, like his Tony-nominated turn as Valmont in the 2008 revival of Les Liasions Dangereuses. That’s why, at the moment, he’s so keenly aware of a farce’s demands.
“Typically, one’s audience awareness is very, very low,” says the British-born actor, who’s also known in America for his television work on Law & Order: UK. “You go out and tell a story with your fellow actors and fellow characters, and your ‘audience thinking’ is way, way down. But with this, it’s all part of it. Your audience awareness has to be really high. If they’re not laughing at something, just be fleet-footed and move on, because you don’t want to lose them.”
He adds that the cast tries to create “rolling laughter,” so that people get more and more tickled as the show gets more and more absurd.
But how do the actors do this? It’s helpful to study a small moment in Act One.
Here’s the set-up: A dashing playboy named Robert (Daniels) is pretending to date a chef named Suzette (Spencer Kayden). But when his mistress Jacqueline starts asking questions, Robert suddenly has to pretend that Suzette is his niece, not his lover. More importantly, he has to make Suzette understand she’s his niece while Jacqueline is standing right there.
In the script, this gets communicated very simply. Jacqueline asks who Suzette is, and Robert says, “My niece!” There’s an awkward pause as he waits for Suzette to catch on, and finally, she gets it.
But Suzette’s response isn’t really the joke. The humor comes from her silence while she figures out what “my niece” means.
Daniels and Kayden have learned how to make this moment work. “It’s how long we can hold the pause with her doing absolutely less than nothing, and me sort of looking at her,” Daniels says. “We’ve got it to a fine art now, where it holds for a long, long time. It wasn’t like that at first. It was very fast, and we just did it quite quickly, and people chuckled, but it wasn’t a big laugh. And suddenly, it kind of developed without ever really being directed.”
The joke evolved because Daniels and Kayden listen to the audience. The can hear the crowd’s response and judge when it’s time to finally end that anguished pause.
The show has dozens of beats like that, and they require total concentration. “Normally, at this point in a run, because the stuff I do is always intensely emotional, I’ve plundered everything in my life to get me to that point,” Daniels says. “It’s exhausting, and it stays with you throughout the day. Whereas this is exhausting in a physical and a mental way, not an emotional way. And it’s exhilarating.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo of Ben Daniels and Spencer Kayden by Joan Marcus