It’s strange to imagine Eugene Ionesco and Benny Hill as distant cousins, but it’s perfectly clear that they both owe more than a little to their mutual spiritual forefather, French playwright Georges Feydeau, whose work Théâtre du Rêve energetically and imaginatively brings to the stage in “Lovers and Lunatics,” playing at 7 Stages through February 17.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Feydeau wrote a series of enormously popular and successful light sex farces that were huge hits in France and all over Europe. Their lively, frenetic depictions of the clumsy mechanics of sexual attraction, anxiety and jealousy are obvious precursors of 20th-century farce. But his heightened theatricality and, surprisingly, often deliciously absurd and even surreal situations were an enormous influence and source of inspiration for the Dadaists, surrealists and absurdists who followed.
In Feydeau, a series of simple misunderstandings can lead an ordinary person to feel that he must impersonate a famous criminal. That, impossibly but inevitably, causes a policeman to arrive. Or a strange, beautiful woman’s outrageously forward advances on a man have a weirdly feminizing effect, causing him to don her coat and tie a napkin on his head like a shawl.
In the first two short plays, the bilingual theater company places a modernized English version set in Atlanta before a more conventional period version in the original French, allowing the audience to watch each one twice on Jeffrey Martin’s appropriately dreamlike and adaptable set. (The French version served mostly to remind me how bad my French has gotten, but I’m pretty sure that’s not why Théâtre du Rêve did it that way.)
These works are surprisingly resilient and adaptable, and the intrigues and machinations still seem modern in the English version, though the winking and exhilarated toying with theatrical conventions — characters speaking directly to the audience in that “Mon Dieu! Comment c’est bizarre!” way, the sheer impossibility of the situations — have clear date stamps on them. The French language in the period version has a glassy, dignified, no-nonsense surface that’s nice to see in its original place, covering the clumsy, humbling mechanics of human interaction underneath, though some audience members may be bored seeing the same play twice.
Were Feydeau’s proto-absurdist imagery and whimsical existentialism even intentional? They seem like merely fun byproducts of his more prosaic goal of creating fast-paced, easily digestible, titillating farce. He aimed to please, rather than please himself by taking aim at society’s conventions and hypocrisy, as his contemporary Oscar Wilde did in late-Victorian England.
These plays seem like bourgeois baubles — the scripted version of a vaudeville act — confirming rather than challenging societal mores. I began to wonder if the surrealists and absurdists weren’t, in their admiration of the popular and ubiquitous Feydeau, the pioneers of hipsterdom, the very first to like something ironically. Either way, it’s great to have the opportunity to glimpse Feydeau’s work, which is so seldom produced in Atlanta. The humor and the strangeness live on.