by Samuel L. Leiter
The gods of irony must have been smiling as I left the Women’s March in midtown to trek down to East 13th Street’s Classic Stage Company in time to catch the matinee of a play called, of all things, The Liar. This is David Ives’s spirited version of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy Le Menteur, set in its original time period but sprinkled with contemporary references. Ives’s verbal liberalism allows for the interpolation of at least one political zinger when the eternally fibbing hero, Dorante, says, toward the end, “I’ll emigrate and become a politician.” It gets the purest laugh of the show.
The Liar is the only comedy by Corneille, who, with Jean Racine, is one of France’s two greatest neoclassical tragic dramatists. Rarely done in English, it has experienced a spate of American productions since Ives prepared what he calls a “translaptation, i.e., a translation with a heavy dose of adaptation,” written in rhyming pentameter for Michael Kahn’s 2010 production at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The chief enjoyment lies in Ives’s notable deftness at writing entertainingly clever rhymes, often with corny groaners accompanied by a self-deprecating tone showing just how much he’s aware of his own outrageousness. He also doesn’t hesitate to make the punny language thoroughly contemporary by using expressions like son of a bitch and schmuck.
The plot circles around Dorante (Christian Conn, of the 2010 production), newly come to Paris, who immediately falls for Clarisse (Ismenia Mendes) but confuses her name with that of her friend Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow). This leads to a series of conventional complications involving another suitor for Clarice’s hand, Alcippe (Tony Roach).
Meanwhile, a third young dandy, Philiste (Aubrey Deeker), finds himself involved, partly as a raisonneur and partly as a lover. The presence of Dorante’s anxious father, Geronte (Adam LeFevre), helps increase the tension until, in one of those classic examples of tying multiple plot strands together, the play concludes with smiles, hugs, and the imminent promise of wedding bells.
Like so many other commedia dell’arte-influenced plays of its time, The Liar is replete with romantic mix-ups, confused identities, twins (two pairs, in fact, including one of the long-lost variety), and a silly servant who is actually one step ahead of his master.
In addition to Clarice and Lucrece, the female characters (whose portrayals are all first-rate) include temperamentally opposite twin sisters played by the same actress, Kelly Hutchinson: Isabelle is sexually voracious while Sabine is puritanical. All, happily, are vividly outspoken. Clarice’s frankness, in fact, resembles that of Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. And speaking of the Bard, be it noted that Ives’s dialogue is rife with lines mirroring those from his plays and sonnets.
The Liar’s central conceit is that its title character, Dorante, is congenitally unable to tell the truth, thereby inspiring reams of imaginative dissembling that give the actor playing him delicious opportunities for displays of verbal and physical dexterity. Dorante’s manservant, Cliton (Carson Elrod), on the other hand, is incapable of mendacity; he, too, gets juicy chances to humorously express his defining trait.
Michael Kahn, again at the helm, makes attractive use of Alexander Dodge’s three-quarters-round set of a pale blue parquet floor backed by an elegant wall painted with pixel-like dots and enhanced by flown-in chandeliers and romantic portraits. Kahn’s staging is full of bright ideas, a memorable example being a sword-less duel between the rival lovers.
Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting helps bring out all the charm in the pretty period costumes of Murell Horton, most of the men in dashing, plumed-hat, high-booted, musketeer-like fashions, the women in silks, lace, jewels, and décolletage. (Both Dodge and Horton also designed Kahn’s 2010 version.)
Kahn’s sprightly troupers, attacking the play as high farce, race along with energy and flair, getting the fun from every pun, and making the two hours pass agreeably enough. Truth be told, though, for all the skill and effort expended, The Liar remains on the pleasantly amusing side of the comedy scale, rarely tipping toward hilarity.
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through February 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).