A cardinal rule in the art of cheating is “Never bring the chicks home to roost.” That’s a roundabout way of saying to stay away from your mate’s house, bed, and/or homefires in general. It is the breaking of this cardinal rule that begins all the trouble in North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre‘s sex farce, Don’t Dress for Dinner.

NRACT has chosen Marc Camoletti’s ding-a-ling farce as the fourth in their seven-show 2010-2011 season, a season that impresses by any standard of measurement among theaters in Raleigh. The storefront theater at 7713 Lead Mine Road boasts a comfortable lobby and an intimate theater that, it becomes evident, is in need of new chairs in the theater. A new-chair drive is currently on to obtain such; the small theater will greatly improve in comfort once the drive is completed.

Don’t Dress for Dinner starts out innocently enough. Bernard (Tom Barbieri:Arsenic and Old Lace, Love Letters) is busy attempting to get wife Jacqueline (Lisa Binion: Wait Until Dark, Steel Magnolias) on the road to her mother’s house, where it is planned she will stay for a long weekend. Jacqui does not like to leave Bernard alone because he is hopelessly unable to take care of himself, even for a few days at a time. But Bernard is insistent that she be on her way on time, because he knows her mother hates it when Jacqui is late. As a one-final-thing before she goes, Jacqui answers the phone in Bernard’s absence, only to learn that Bernard has hired a cook for the evening from the local agency, Bon Appetit. Alarms go off in Jacqui’s head, and she wants to know of Bernard’s need for a cook. Wrinkle 1: in point of fact, Bernard’s best friend Robert (Ryan LaDue: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Into the Woods) is coming over while Jacqui is away, so the two can catch up. Robert has been in Hong Kong for the past year.

Wrinkle 2: Robert and Jacqui have been having an affair. As soon as she learns that Robert is coming, Jacqui cancels plans to see her mother. She is not going to miss an opportunity to get between the sheets with her main squeeze, even if it must be done under Bernard’s nose, so to speak.

Wrinkle 3: the real reason Bernard wanted Jacqui out of the house is because his main squeeze, Suzanne (Sharon Galluzzo: Shalom: A Passion, Twain by the Tracks), is also coming over; in fact, the two should have arrived on the same train from Raleigh. Suzie, a model and actress, is in Bernard’s words “A knockout,” and now that Jacqui is staying, her imminent arrival is “a disaster.” Bernard forces – over extreme resistance – Robert to tell Jacqui that Suzie is HIS main squeeze, which puts Robert in hot water with Jacqui.

Wrinkle 4: Enter Suzette, the girl from Bon Appetit (Mary Beth Hoots: Out of Order, Clue: the Musical), who also goes by Suzie. Robert, alone with Suzie because Bernard and Jacqui have gone to the market, believes this is the Suzanne of Bernard’s dreams, and begins to explain that she must pretend to be Robert’s “date.” It is clear, from this point onward, that no one is going to get what they came here for, in any way, shape, or form. When Suzanne arrives, it is necessary that she become the cook, and she has no such skills!

What we have here is a simple boilerplate sex farce, played with manic behavior and a straight face while trying one’s best not to be found out by one’s spouse. Both Jacqui and Bernard have broken the Cardinal Rule (see above), and the night is in an uproar because of the mistaken identities and hand-to-hand combat that result. But just as things begin to settle down and some truth is coming out as to who is what with whom, enter Wrinkle 5, George (Andy Miller: Waiting for Godot, Big River). George is Suzette’s jealous husband, who has come to pick up his wife and gets caught up in the Game being played by all concerned.

Director Brian Lord has a reasonably good cast assembled, who manage the misdirection and increasing drunkenness of the night well. But Bernard is a bit too smarmy and Robert is a bit too innocent to actually carry off their roles well – despite excellent moments for both. The one who seems most comfortable in her skin for this show is Mary Beth Hoots, who manages to carry off Suzette with a tremendous amount of good humor augmented by her mercenary slant, which nets her not only several hundred dollars in “tips” but also a several-thousand-dollar fur coat! She is by far the most comfortable person onstage and she outshines the other actors with a natural, tight, and hilarious characterization. Hoots’ performance is by far and away the real reason to go see this show; her Suzette becomes the central character while all the others get relegated to supporting-role status.

Don’t Dress for Dinner is a funny show that has several moments of knee-slapping humor and more than one chance for a good guffaw. But if you go to see it, be prepared for a cast that is not quite a well-oiled machine and be ready to get your laughs from the lines, rather than the actions, of the characters. And remember: Mary Beth is a Hoot (sorry; I couldn’t resist).

(Edited, corrected 2/1.)