‘The Metromaniacs’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
If the title The Metromaniacs brings to mind a bunch of rush-hour commuters, you’re in good company. David Ives’ (Venus in Fur) “translaptation” of an 18-century French farce even has one character ask another if the word “metromaniacs” means “Crazy for subways.”
The original is La Métromanie, by the long-forgotten Alexis Piron (1689-1773). Ives, master of spinning rhymed couplets into verbal pirouettes, has radiantly rendered it into contemporary English. Ives’s previous versions of forgotten French comedies have been confined to the 17th century (Corneille, Molière, and Regnard) but here he leaps to 1738 for a play whose French title actually means something like “crazy for poetic verse.”
According to Ives’s program note, the play, loosely inspired by a contemporary scandal involving Voltaire, was a structural mess requiring that Ives do a lot of fiddling. And fiddle he did. He retains the multiple plot lines but metatheatricalizes them so that the characters let us know directly that they’re as confused about who’s who as we are.
This is one of those comedies of intrigue where nearly everyone assumes one or more identities to reach their goal. One mistaken identity misfire follows the other, much of it embedded in a conceit that has the characters acting out a play. Opportunities abound for satirical commentary on the confusion between illusion and reality, theatre and real life, and the difference between true and assumed or imagined identity.
The event is a gathering at the well-appointed home of a well-to-do Parisian, Francalou (Adam LeFevre), a passionate writer of poems and plays who has planned an amateur performance of his new play The Metromaniacs. He’s the father of the poetry-loving Lucille (Amelia Pedlow, twirling a hair strand and doing a wry Valley Girl), and employer of the sassy, scheming maid, Lisette (Dina Thomas, stealing all her scenes).
Francalou has caused a faddish stir by writing poetry under the pseudonym of Mlle. Meriadec de Peaudoncqville, which has drawn would-be poet Damis (Christian Conn) to Francalou’s house. Also, there is the unpoetic Dorante (Noah Averbach-Katz), in love with Lucille.
Francalou, who despises Dorante’s father and doesn’t want Dorante as a son-in-law, creates a diversion by convincing Damis that Lucille is the poetess he’s seeking. Soon, so many people are pretending they’re someone other than they are—Lisette, for example, passes herself off as Lucille by dressing just like her—that you’ll welcome the intermission just to have some time to unravel the cat’s cradle of complications you’ve been watching. Mondor’s explanation at the start of Act II of what’s happened thus far is as funny as it’s useful.
This Red Bull Theater production is essentially the same (with most of the cast intact) as the one distinguished director Michael Kahn staged for Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2015. Kahn races his ebullient actors through the growing confusion, speaking the rhythmic, rhyming verse with expert timing and razor-sharp diction, getting multiple chuckles, as its confusions pile up toward their eventual unscrambling.
Act I suffers a little from a general tendency to push the comedy, physically and vocally, indicating how funny it is rather than letting the humor emerge more naturally. And some of the shtick is not as hilarious as it thinks it is. One repeated bit that works every time is a mock face-slapping routine.
In Act II, when we have a better idea of what’s going on, a more organic sense of character and situation emerges, especially during a scene from Francalou’s play involving Damis’s uncle, Baliveau (nicely done by Peter Kybart).
Peter Noone’s setting, gilded false proscenium included, of a fancy drawing room dressed with scenic flats depicting flora for Francalou’s play, is a delight. So are Murell Horton’s period costumes with their stylish modern touches.
But the chief attraction here is verbal, with Ives’ incessantly clever rhymes and puns, sometimes mildly off-color, as when Mondor describes his poetry-obsessed master, Damis:
He works all day but never does a thing.
He’ll pace, he’ll moan, stand on one leg, he’ll sing.
Most of the day he spends inside his mind –
His head stuck firmly up his own behind.
A visit to the Duke will quickly reveal, however, that that’s not where David Ives’s head is located.
The Duke on 42nd St.
229 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through May 26
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).