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Strong female performances buoy Chamberlayne Actors Theatre pro debut. 

Girls Dress Up "Dinner"

"I should get an Oscar for this," declares the ditzy-like-a-fox cook, Suzette (Crystal Oakley), trapped in the convoluted plot of "Don't Dress for Dinner." While not quite Oscar-worthy, Oakley's commendable performance does give "Dinner," the first professional production from Chamberlayne Actors Theatre (CAT), the traction it needs to avoid slipping into a formless muddle.

While Oakley gets capable support from her fellow actresses, the male half of the "Dinner" cast threatens to drag the show down into mediocrity at every turn. Luckily, this silly sex farce has enough wacky perplexity built in so that the show ambles along amiably, undeterred by a couple of imperfections. It even serves up several hearty laughs for those predisposed to broad burlesque humor.

Setting the mayhem in motion is Bernard (Bob Murphy), a philandering husband who invites his mistress Suzanne (Tanya Tatum) to his country house outside of New York for a weekend tryst. Bernard also invites his old friend Robert (Art Trotter) as camouflage, not knowing that Robert has been having an affair with Bernard's wife, Jacqueline (H. Lynn Smith).

Jacqueline is supposed to be off visiting her mother, but it wouldn't be a farce if she didn't end up at the country house, too. The final cog in these machinations is Suzette, an unwitting cook Bernard has hired for the weekend, who becomes intertwined in the various lovers' schemes.

Murphy's Bernard is a confusing jumble of gestures, overdramatic double-takes and oily smarminess. His performance is further sabotaged by director Alice Schreiner's casting decisions: The obvious age difference between Murphy and Smith begs for explanation.

As Robert, Trotter makes his bid for the Al Gore "Woody" award. His delivery remains too balanced even into the second act when copious drinking has supposedly loosened him up. In these later scenes, the contrast between Oakley and Trotter is palpable. Oakley gets funnier with every drink as her character transforms from a simple cook to a smooth operator, cleverly milking each twist in the plot for a tidy ransom.

Tatum has a relatively thankless role, the script forcing her to coo excessively over every sexual innuendo. Still, she transcends the material, using expert timing to bring down the house late in the second act with the simple question, "Who?" If "Dinner's" denouement is anticlimactic, it also finally settles the spotlight on Smith, who makes Jacqueline the most believable character here.

Thanks to years as a successful community theater, CAT brings a solid technical foundation to this production. Lin Heath's set is nicely appointed, with a no-frills lighting design by John Ambrose. The costumes by Sarah Mallory and Helen Smith are generally excellent; the French maid's outfit that Suzette easily converts to a slinky evening gown is a particular standout.

"Dinner's" final course includes Roger McAughan as Suzette's husband, George. As a clueless musclehead finding himself knee-deep in deception, George could have been hilarious. But McAughan's performance is only moderately amusing. This last male misfire doesn't distract from the solid work of the cast's women, though. While not a full-fledged feast, "Don't Dress for Dinner" still delivers enough tasty morsels to make it
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