Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s Lilies, or The Revival of a Romantic Drama debuted in Canada in 1987 and was made into a prize-winning film in 1996.The story of a gay love triangle, the play is only now having its New York premiere at Off Broadway’s The Theater Center courtesy of The Drama Company NYC. Performed in the translation by Linda Gaboriau, this is unfortunately not one of the many acclaimed productions that were seen in Canada. Love stories and homophobia are always welcome themes, but the play’s purple passages and melodramatic events get in the way of the basic story. While the title is never entirely explained, it does suggest the baroque, hothouse atmosphere that the play attempts to create.
The play is set in two time frames: it begins in 1952 and then flashes back to events that took place in 1912 when the main characters were schoolboys of 19 in the French Canadian town of Roberval. Simon Doucet has spent 30 years in prison for a crime he claims he did not commit. He has called for the Bishop Jean Bilodeau, a former classmate who is under the impression he is to hear a confession. But what Doucet has in store for him is a play reenacting a gay love triangle that involved the two of them and impoverished Count Vallier De Tilly, a charity student also at the St. Sebastian School for Boys.
While the film version makes it clear that Bilodeau has come to the prison to hear a confession, the play is a little vague about where it takes place. And while all the characters are played by men, ostensibly the prisoners, in the play, Doucet says that they have been rehearsing for three years without explaining where. The Bishop is forced at knifepoint to witness the story of his youth along with that of Simon and Vallier. Although he protests its authenticity, Doucet insists it is taken from Bilodeau’s youthful diary.
The reenactment begins with a school rehearsal for a staging of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s 1911 The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a strange choice for a parochial school considering the work created a scandal at its premiere for is homoeroticism and sadomasochism and was condemned by the Archbishop of Paris. Whether he knows or not, director Father Saint-Michel has cast 19 year old lovers Simon as Sebastian and Vallier as Sanae. Unfortunately, young Bilodeau, formerly Simon’s best friend, a self-hating gay teenager, has seen to it that his mother has gone to the principal to have the play canceled. The symbolist and aesthetic language of the rehearsal spills over into the play Lilies that we are watching.
The single parents of both Simon and Vallier appear at the rehearsal with vastly different reactions: eccentric Countess Marie-Laure De Tilly who has been abandoned by her husband five years before is enchanted by the young love she sees depicted on the stage, while Simon’s brutal father Timothee later beats him within an inch of his life, something Simon lies about throughout the rest of the play.
In order to break up the relationship between the two young men, Bilodeau has introduced Simon to the heiress Lydie-Anne De Rozier who falls in love with the young man 11 years her junior. The play eventually hurtles to its tragic conclusion along with several cases of arson, two murders, picking up a character arriving in a hot-air balloon and a fiancée that becomes a beard for the relationship between Simon and Vallier. The too colorful collection of characters include a closeted drama director priest, a mother suffering from delusions, a violent homophobic father, a cynical heiress and a sympathetic doctor growing away from his demanding wife.
The play is difficult to stage in that it needs to suggest two time periods simultaneously which Andrew Benvenuti’s production fails to do. It also needs lush design for the 1912 period which is couched in the language of symbolist and aesthetic poetry or the claustrophobic feeling of a prison. The uncredited set is simply black curtains, nine chairs which are rearranged, with a few required props (café tables, an old fashioned bathtub), creating no atmosphere whatever. Part of the problem with the Jerry Orbach Theater is that because of the sight lines when the actors are seated they are difficult to see. Caitlyn Piccirilo’s period costumes are suitable without making any statement of their own. The lighting by Reid Sullivan is usually dim and realistic but occasionally draws attention to itself when it turns green or red for special effects.
The biggest problem with the production is the callowness of the acting. True, three of the actors are playing teenagers but some performers have made entire careers out of this age group. As the parochial school students, Hartley Parker (the angry Simon 1912), Florimond Le Goupil-Maier (the confused Vallier) and Grant Hale (the sneaky tattler Jean) are all woefully inadequate. The rest of the cast is a bit more comfortable with their roles (including the men playing women in drag) but do not all seem to be appearing in the same play. Best is Bill Morton as the mad Countess Marie-Laure De Tilly who glides round the stage dispensing strange advice and unhinged pronouncements, but is often spot-on in her ravings. As the 30-year-old heiress Lydie-Anne De Rozier who falls for the young Simon Doucet, J.P. Ross is snide and sarcastic as she is meant to be but seems to be out of a social drama. In two roles each, JJ Miller (the older Simon Doucet as of 1952 and Timothee Doucet, the young Simon’s single father) and Drew Paton (aesthetic Father Saint-Michel and the sympathetic Doctor Baron de Hue) are extremely different.
Lilies is an attempt at old-fashioned theater or to couch a modern story in old-fashioned trappings. The problem with the play for modern audiences may be stated in its subtitle, “The Revival of a Romantic Drama.” Unfortunately, the first New York production of veteran Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s controversial play neither does it justice nor is it very convincing. The gay triangle and the insidious homophobia appear up to date but the trappings of the play are that of another era, one that is foreign to most actors alive today, and certainly more operatic than most theater audiences expect.
Lilies, or the Revival of Romantic Drama (through June 6, 2021: Wednesdays – Mondays)
The Drama Company NYC
Jerry Orbach Theater, The Theater Center, 210 W. 50th Street at Broadway, Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-921-7862 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission