The third of Ives’ French comedy adaptations to be presented by the Classic Stage Company following 2011’s The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and 2014’s The Heir Apparent from Jean-François Regnard, The Liar may just be the funniest and wittiest of the three. Directed by Michael Kahn who staged the world premiere of this version at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C., in 2010, the talented cast of nine includes Christian Conn in the title role and Tony Roach as his hot–tempered childhood friend Alcippe, both of whom appeared in Kahn’s earlier production.
Dorante, the title character, has just arrived in Paris from Poitiers where he has grown bored studying law. Charming, sophisticated and well-educated (he quotes Shakespeare at the drop of a hat), he has one flaw: he cannot tell the truth, thinking that by embellishing everything he says he is making life more interesting for all concerned. But he also can’t keep his lies straight, and each one leads to another. He immediately meets and hires an out-of-work valet, Cliton, who has one flaw, you guessed it, he cannot tell a lie. Dorante goes so far as telling his new hire that he speaks Japanese, Algonquin – and Middle Yiddish, but by then Cliton has his number.
Immediately after, they meet two beautiful young women, Clarice and Lucrece, in the Tuileries Gardens along with Clarice’s maid Isabelle. Dorante tells them that he has been a soldier on the German front and they are taken with his stories of derring-do. Smitten with the more vivacious one, Dorante mistakenly believes her to be “Lucrece.” Little does he know that Clarice has been engaged for two years to his childhood friend Alcippe.
When his father Geronte arrives to tell him of an engagement he has arranged with an old friend for the hand of his niece, Clarice, Dorante lies that he has been married in secret back in Poitiers. Things become increasingly complicated both by Dorante’s lies, the women’s scheming, and the fact that Isabelle is a twin to Lucrece’s maid Sabine, which one no seems to have noticed. As in classic comedy, all ends happily with several marriages plighted and hopefully Dorante has learned his lesson as his lies have been exposed to all.
Although Corneille is best known for tragedies like his masterpiece Le Cid, his first six plays including The Illusion (adapted in our time by Tony Kushner) were comedies. While this Corneille play (called Le Menteur in French) is very much a rewritten version of the Spanish play La Verdad Sospechosa by Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, Ives’ program notes to The Liar indicate that he has also made a great many changes, which he calls “translaptation.” As he explains, he divided the scenes between indoors and out, made Dorante and Cliton opposites, invented a lying lesson, turned the two roles of the maids into twins played by the same actress, and gave the nearly silent Lucrece in Corneille’s play a personality and substantial lines. All of this adds to the audience’s modern enjoyment.
However, it is Ives’ joy in language that is the most infectious. The rhymed couplets keep coming and surprising us over and over again (bitter/twitter; prize/rhapsodize, jocular/interlocutor, kiss/dentrifice, carbuncle/uncle). He has also created remarkably agile, felicitous and contemporary turns of phrase: meet-and-greet/ bittersweet; Chanel perfume/key to my room; perfect ten/tragic flaw again; chance to laugh/some dumb gaffe; believe this boy/pure trompe l’oeil. Considering the nature of lying, the anachronisms like contact lens, superglue, outed me, Kid Dorante, party clown, pants on fire, etc., seem like natural hyperbole for these poseurs who take themselves all too seriously. So too Kahn’s clever direction is highly in tune with this style: Dorante and Alcippe’s duel is fought without swords in pantomime and Cliton appears with a modern paper coffee cup.
The cast could not be better. In the title role, Conn swashes his way through every situation getting more and more carried away with his lies as the plot unfolds. Carson Elrod (Peter and the Starcatcher, The Explorers Club, All in the Timing, etc.) as the valet who can’t tell lies is his usually wry self and makes a striking contrast with his boss. As the two beautiful heiresses, Ismenia Mendes’ Clarice is all passion and spirit, while Amelia Pedlow’s Lucrece is the more rational and subdued. Kelly Hutchinson steals every scene in which she appears alternating between the animated, libidinous Isabelle and the dour, puritanical Sabine.
Roach is a fiery, temperamental Alcippe, while Aubrey Deeker as his friend and confidant Philiste is the even-tempered pragmatist. As Dorante’s gullible elderly father Geronte, veteran actor Adam Lefevre, who has appeared in Ives’ fourth French adaptation of Alexis Piron’s The Metromaniacs, not yet seen in New York, brings an avuncular Shakespearean appeal to his desperation for a daughter-in-law and a grandchild.
Murell Horton’s elegant and colorful 17th century costumes which put each character in a different color are a pleasure to look at. The unit set by Alexander Dodge works beautifully for both the outdoor and indoor scenes (with the addition of huge period paintings for the interiors). Adam Wernick’s original music with its harpsicord and flute orchestration sets the scene all by itself. Other memorable members of the production team are J. Jared Janas on wig, hair and makeup design, and Deborah Hecht’s vocal coaching.
Part of the fun of The Liar is that simply as an unfamiliar comedy its plotting is all a surprise. David Ives, one of our cleverest playwrights, has taken an unknown and forgotten French play from the 17th century and given it a wise, witty and delightful adaptation, with knowing swipes at Moliere and Shakespeare, among others. Michael Kahn’s inventive and stylish direction keeps this smart comedy bubbling like rare champagne in the hands of his accomplished cast. Even the ending when Dorante suggests that he might go on stage and be an actor – or better yet “emigrate and be a politician” makes this a timely, yet classic entertainment.
The Liar (through February 26, 2017)
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes with one intermission