January 28, 2017

"The Liar" is Honestly Just So-So

Staging a farce is a little like whipping up a soufflé. You need good ingredients, a skillful cook and the ineffable airiness that turns ordinary egg custard into a fluffy delight. The Liar, which opened Thursday night at Classic Stage Company, has only two out of the three going for it.

The ingredients are time-tested since the show is based on a comedy by the 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille. Although he isn't as well-known today as his contemporaries Molière and Racine, Corneille penned more than two dozen plays and was just as big a deal as they in his day.

Most of his plays were tragedies but Le Menteur was a satire that poked good-natured fun at the aristocracy. Its main character is a provincial nobleman named Dorante, who is the title's serial fabricator. As soon as he arrives in Paris, Dorante makes up a glamorous backstory for himself to woo one of the two young women he meets in the Tuileries.

Problems ensue when he not only confuses their names (Clarice and Lucrece) but discovers that one of them is secretly engaged to his childhood friend. Also around are Dorante's father, who is trying to arrange a marriage for his son, and some servants who have issues of their own. 

Notes get passed to the wrong person, a duel is fought, faces are slapped and doors are slammed, albeit metaphorically on Alexander Dodge's simple set, which has only door frames.

And skillful hands mix all of this altogether. The play has been adapted by David Ives, the master renovator of old plays who transformed Molière's The Misanthrope into the deliciously funny School for Lies that also played at Classic Stage six years ago (click here for my review of it).

Once again, Ives has maintained the rhyming couplets of the original but spiced them up with witty topical references and some amusing anachronisms. He also throws in a few riffs on Shakespeare just for the hell of it.

Another experienced hand Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, which commissioned the adaptation and staged it back in 2010, directs the show with brio, although perhaps too much of it. 

The Liar also boasts a game cast, whose members have performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare in the Park, the Red Bull Theatre and a bunch of other companies that specialize in 16th and 17th century plays.

They all work hard and mainly land their jokes, particularly the invaluable funnyman Carson Elrod, who plays Dorante's manservant and also serves as the production's affable master-of-ceremonies. Meanwhile, Murell Horton's costumes, borrowed from the earlier D.C. production, are sumptuous and witty (click here to read more about them).

And yet, the airiness is missing. It's as though Kahn and his actors couldn't decide if they should be ironic or all-out silly and so got caught in the mushy middle. That can sometimes be OK for an eggy custard but not for a soufflé—or a French farce.

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