On April 21, 2012, as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s Lecture Series, Ben Daniels and Adam
James spoke about Don’t Dress for Dinner with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod.
An edited transcript follows:
Ted Sod: Adam, this is your Broadway debut — correct?
Adam James: This is my Broadway debut, yes.
Ted Sod: Well, we’re thrilled to have you.
Adam James: Thank you very much. I am very glad to be here.
Ted Sod: And Ben, you made a spectacular debut on this very stage, am I right about that?
Ben Daniels: Yes.
Ted Sod: It was in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Did the two of you ever meet while you were both
working in England?
Ben Daniels: Yes. We never worked together, but we’ve known each other for years.
Ted Sod: You’ve never been in a play together before this?
Ben Daniels: No.
Adam James: They never thought that was a good idea.
Ben Daniels: And now they all remember why.
Ted Sod: Ben, tell us about coming back to do a play that’s quite different from Les Liaisons
Ben Daniels: I was thrilled to be invited back because I don’t have a green card, and you all know the
hoops they have to jump through to get a Brit to appear on an American stage. I was excited that I was
asked to do a comedy. I’ve done only one comedy before when I was twenty-one. It was my first job and
it was with Alan Ayckbourn at his little theatre in Scarborough. And then the rest has been doom and
gloom up until this point. I don’t know, maybe I’m bookending my career. Maybe this is the last job I’ll
Ted Sod: I highly doubt it. Can we talk about how you both approach a play like this? It seems to
me it is very rigorous physically.
Adam James: What’s been interesting is that my previous theatrical experiences have cost me
emotionally a lot more than this one does. However, this has cost me physically, I think, more than any
other play I’ve ever done. This type of farce requires you to be as physical as you saw this afternoon and
it’s exhausting. Ben laughs at me. He’s all about stamina.
Ben Daniels: I don’t find it exhausting at all. I found every other theatre job I’ve done apart from this
exhausting. I don’t know if I’ve picked them or they’ve come my way, but most everything else has been
big emotional parts. And after two or three weeks, it’s really hard to keep a level of truth going
emotionally and it’s depressing after a while. Whereas I find this completely exhilarating. The audience
this afternoon was brilliant. It’s an unbelievable sensation to stand onstage and feel that tangible
excitement. It’s a whole new kind of language for me, which I love.
Ted Sod: Is there a specific process you have to use to act in this kind of play?
Ben Daniels: You have to start from a level of truth. So we do this thing called “actioning,” which is from
the Stanislavski method. With each line you are trying to do something to the other person: an action.
So, for example: Robert educates Bernard or Robert pins Bernard or Robert pushes Bernard. With this
kind of farce, you can extend the action and it can become very large, but it has to be based in truth. That
is the same for working on drama too, but what is different with farce is you can’t just try to get laughs.
After a while the audience will stop laughing because your actions are not based in any truth. The bit on
the stairs, for instance, where I think Bernard’s telling me to dance. I don’t know what he’s trying to say. I
think I’ve got the right girl and he’s pantomiming, No, no, no, it’s not her, and I don’t know what he
means. I think he’s telling me to dance. I don’t know why, but somehow Robert thinks that dancing will
make everything alright. And as long as you’re playing the truth you can play and extend it.
Ted Sod: How did the phone cord business comes about?
Ben Daniels: It’s dirty.
Ted Sod: It is dirty. Can you help us get a window into how that happened in rehearsal?
Adam James: It dictates in the script that they tussle with the phone and that’s as far as it goes. What
you saw today was a process of experiment and discovery on our parts. It was just a series of ideas we
Ben Daniels: We didn’t know how far we could take it until we had an audience. The head in the crotch
was going to be cut when we were in the rehearsal room and we both said, “Let’s just try it with an
audience.” It’s so frenetic and then that crotch moment happens and there’s a moment of respite before
the laughter kicks off again. So it works brilliantly, but it was just something that happened organically.
Ted Sod: Camoletti uses the same character names, Bernard and Robert in many of his plays.
Certainly they’re in Boeing-Boeing. Was part of your process ever to figure out how you two
became such good friends? Did you have to discuss that or was it immaterial?
Ben Daniels: It was kind of immaterial.
Ted Sod: Did you feel that when the director, John Tillinger, decided to set the play in 1960 that it
gave you license to explore a different sensibility?
Ben Daniels: It allowed my reading of Robert to be much more innocent. I can be more shocked in a 1960
setting in a French village, two hours outside of Paris. I can find things more shocking than I would if it
was set in 1987 when it was written. So, it does alter your sensibilities slightly. Adam’s character has
more of a swagger, wouldn’t you say?
Adam James: Yes.
Ted Sod: Talk to us about the tango you do with Suzette. How did that come about?
Ben Daniels: When I first read the play, I thought: “This dance would be great if we weren’t just
drunkenly stumbling around,” which is obviously how you imagine it when you read it. I think it says
that, “they’re very drunk and they come in doing the tango.” I think it was day one of rehearsals and we
did a read through and Joey said, “Now, the tango.” And I said, “Can I just say it would be fantastic if we
could do it properly and really, really learn it.” And he said, “Well, you’ve got lessons arranged with one
of the best tango teachers in New York.” We had this great artist named Dardo. We had tango lessons
every week in the mornings for an hour and it was brilliant. It was absolutely fantastic.
Ted Sod: And you and Spencer kept working on it?
Ben Daniels: Yes, we’re always slightly tweaking it. With the bull thing, we needed something to get us
on to the sofa, something silly at the end of it. That obviously isn’t part of real tango.
Ted Sod: And that is rehearsed every night before the show at the dance call — correct?
Ben Daniels: Yes, along with the fights.
Ted Sod: I wanted to ask you about that, Adam, because when I saw the play, it looked like
Jennifer was really walloping you.
Adam James: She does. She just slaps me. It’s called suffering for one’s art. No, sometimes she does,
actually, hit me. She’ll give me one by mistake. We have the fight calls set up for about an hour or so
before the show to just mark through the fights so that we’re technically familiarized as to what we’re
doing. Slapping is just an onstage trick: she makes a movement while I knap with my hands and we try to
disguise that as best we can.
Ted Sod: Her windup was so full that I thought, wow, she’s really smacking him. It played well
from my perspective.
Adam James: Great, good, I mean, if we can get it so that you really do believe that she’s smacking the
hell out of me, then that’s terrific.
Ted Sod: Adam, you have to change your clothes quite often in this play.
Adam James: I do, yes.
Ted Sod: Do you actually get to rest when you do that or is there some madness going on
Adam James: There’s a bit of madness going on backstage. Some of the changes aren’t too bad. The
quickest one is after the sauce goes all over me and my crotch. That’s quite a quick change into the dinner
jacket afterwards, but we’ve got these brilliant dressers backstage who have finessed the operation of
Ted Sod: Tell me what you’ve learned during previews, because it must be really hard to rehearse
a play like this with no audience day after day. Can you tell us about the learning curve you went
through during the first couple of previews?
Ben Daniels: It’s been a massive learning curve. You hear everything. You’re hyper aware and so if
something is going wrong you feel it. The audience reaction is so audible, if something isn’t working, you
quickly think, right, that’s not working. I’m going to weed that out, but it seems like they want to laugh
there where I’ve been charging through. So I’ll just open it a little bit. For example, the response, say, to
the dress bit with Spencer was a shock. We sort of knew what we were going to do and that has been
finessed and finessed so we can do it really quickly now. And there were lines in the middle of it which
were holding it up which we weeded out so now, it’s just BAM! And the reaction is like an explosion at
that point. And it’s so unexpected; we had no idea that it would play that way.
Adam James: We’re at the point in previews where all that finessing and fine-tuning is still going on, but
we’ve got the basics of it all. It’s very interesting night after
night how an audience reacts. We have what we call little markers: bits in the play and jokes that always
get a very specific reaction. It’s very interesting to gauge the night according to how big or small those
reactions are. But then there are some nights, like last Thursday, when we had just a really odd night
where it felt like the audience wasn’t laughing at any jokes for a good twenty minutes into the play. It
was really odd because it hadn’t happened up until then.
Ben Daniels: It was terrifying. It takes your confidence away and suddenly you get shy, which is the
worst thing. If you come on and your laugh lines don’t get laughs, it’s awful. You feel like the biggest
horrible phony and the audience is onto it like sharks. And then you imagine the audience saying, “No
wonder he’s not done a comedy before.” It’s terrible. You have this little pirate on your shoulder saying,
“Oh, they’re not laughing. Ooh, you’re sweating now. They’re going to ask you to leave. You better get
back on the plane before the interval.”
Ted Sod: Tell me, do you both have a specific prep before this show?
Ben Daniels: You have to come on in the best mood. We all have our own separate dressing rooms and we
all have music that we play so loudly. It’s like whatever is going to make you get into this great, good
mood to come on — it’s buzzing backstage. I don’t sit down in my dressing room. I put all my makeup on
standing up. I think that’s what I do on every job. I go in there and never sit, I’m too antsy. So I get ready
very quickly and then I just dance for about twenty-five minutes.
Adam James: I have music going on, but I’m almost the opposite of Ben. Sometimes people come into my
dressing room five minutes before we go on and I’ll be lying on my bed, fully dressed and not even in my
costume, listening to music and they’re screaming, “What are you doing? You’re going on stage in a
minute!” So I actually get ready at the last minute and then go on.
Ted Sod: Are there big differences between the British audience and the American audience?
Adam James: The most surprising thing I found is what an American audience finds funny as opposed to a
British one. It’s really interesting. Brits love cruelty. They love being wicked and nasty about people, it’s
the kind of thing they think is funny. So, for example, that bit when I’m describing Spencer’s character
and I say, “That shrimp,” there are some nights when I hear audible gasps from the American audience. In
London, they would love it.
Ted Sod: Would you talk a little bit about the moment in the play that you absolutely adore? Is
Adam James: There’s something about the second half where physically I do ridiculous gestures and
nonsense moves and that’s exciting to be able to do. There’s something quite fulfilling about being able
to be that naughty I suppose, or big.
Audience Question #1: First of all guys, forget Thursday night, don’t change a thing! There’s so
much tumbling and movement in this production. Did you train for any of those acrobatics? Did
you have gymnastics classes or is it inherent?
Ben Daniels: We don’t train for it. We have a fight director who comes in and teaches us how to fall.
Certain areas of the stage are padded; like that rug over there has a mattress underneath it. And there’s
also one built into the hall behind the sofa. So we can just fall onto mats without hurting ourselves.
Ted Sod: Are you wearing knee pads at all?
Ben Daniels: I wear kneepads and elbow pads under my pajamas.
Ted Sod: Isn’t there a massage therapist that comes regularly to work on you?
Adam James: It’s incredibly physical and there are repetitive movements that happen all the time and
the body can get injured very easily by doing something like that. It’s more preventative, really. We have
this fantastic woman who’s amazing.
Ben Daniels: A miracle woman.
Adam James: And she comes and works on us all in between the shows.
Ben Daniels: We get twenty minutes each.
Audience Question #2: This question is for Ben Daniels. I absolutely loved you as Valmont in Les
Liaisons Dangereuses, you were so delightfully lascivious and sinister. And tonight you were just
a complete scene stealer with amazing comic ability. My question to you is: can I please apply to
be your nephew?
Ben Daniels: Yes.
Ted Sod: Wow. He said yes. Actors are very generous.
Audience Question #3: First of all, I want to say that it was an amazing performance. I want to
know what attracts you both to a script?
Adam James: Mainly it’s the writing and the subject matter. How that’s presented and what it says to me
when I first read it. That’s what I normally go off of. And from then on it’s who else is involved, who’s
directing it, money. But writing is always what I start with. I try to find something that’s new for me.
Ben Daniels: Normally, if I feel like I’ve not done it before and I can do something with a part then, I’m
automatically drawn toward it. We’re really, really lucky in England that we have amazing theatres that
do a diverse range of shows. I think we’re slightly luckier than New York in that respect and our new
writing in London is fantastic. I think the best new writing in America goes into TV. I think you beat our TV
series hands down.
Audience Question #4: I really appreciate your work this afternoon and thank you for taking the
time out to speak to us. I was just wondering how different generations are reacting to this farce?
Ben Daniels: We’ve had one Hiptix night. It was a 35 and younger crowd and they went crazy and we had
no idea that it would appeal to that age range. And it seems to be appealing to everyone, but I don’t know
Audience Question #5: Well, first, I want to thank you for a wonderful afternoon of documentary
theatre about what life is really like in the French countryside. I also wanted to ask you both if
there’s one or two roles that you’ve always wanted to play, but haven’t yet?
Adam James: There are a couple of Shakespeare parts I’ve got my eye on. As I get older, I’d love to do
King Lear. Macbeth is an interesting character that appeals to me. I think it’s a good play about a mid-life
Ben Daniels: I too want to play in the Scottish play.
Audience Question #6: Would you say this is a comedy or a farce? I always thought farce had a lot
of slamming doors – was that taken out of this version?
Ted Sod: It’s interesting that you should bring that up because when I interviewed the director, I
asked him, “Do you consider this a comedy or a farce?” He said, “If you call it a comedy, it’s a
comedy. If you call it a farce, it’s a farce.” The best definition of farce I’ve ever heard is: “When
someone should call the police and they don’t.”
I don’t know if the situations in this show warrant a call to the police. What do you think?
Ben Daniels: I suppose I could call the police, but I don’t.