Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (b. 1688-d. 1763) had a way with comedies of manners that was as florid as his full name. He couched his elegantly frivolous commentaries on love and its troublesome imitations in dialogue for which the adjective "mannered" only begins to suggest what transpires. In Marivaux, the conversation of scoundrels, opportunists, and male and female wits is so cleverly convoluted that the French had to invent a word for it. Appropriately, they came up "marivaudage," plenty of which abounds in this typical example of the author's intelligent and mirthful work.
Though audiences should be warned that strict attention must be paid to the colloquies cropping up throughout The False Servant (here translated colloquially by Kathleen Tolan), they should also be apprised that Brian Kulick's production is handsome and -- wonder of wonders! -- lucid. This is immediately apparent in the stage picture that set and costume designer Mark Wendland presents. The central image is a wagon loaded with trunks of all shapes and sizes. The wagon, which takes on the appearance of a mighty coach, is moved from time to time; the trunks are arranged, rearranged, and opened to reveal props and a small stage upon which cardboard figures are manipulated.
Wendland does his successful utmost to keep The False Servant spinning like a top. His costumes are fabric-generous and, in one particular instance, stunning. Lighting designer Kevin Adams and sound designer Mark Huang pitch in, too. But it's the cast, putting Kulick's perceptive directorial notions into practice, that makes the rendering one to cheer. Martha Plimpton is the production's leading light. Since she portrays the title character and remains throughout in a chevalier's apparel, it's hard to say if she's the leading lady or the leading man. The female has disguised herself as a male, you see, to learn more about a would-be suitor named Lelio (Jesse Pennington), who has been engaged to a countess (Tina Benko) but decides that the lady's annual income isn't enough for him -- not when he could alternatively tie the knot with a woman who has twice as much, and that woman is the chevalier through whose masquerade he almost sees.
That's enough of the intricate plot, other than to say that a different, scheming servant named Trivelin (Bill Buell) and a retainer called Arlequin (Paul Lazar) lurk about in order to throw as many monkey wrenches into the narrative as the French traffic will allow. Oh, and it's probably necessary to also mention that this game of love and chance -- to invoke another Marivaux title -- ends with some aristocratic hearts bruised. That's how things were often summed up by the dramatist, who was born not only with a silver spoon in his mouth but also with a silver quill in his hand.
Yes, the players are the laudable thing here. Plimpton, who tested her mettle on arch material in David Mamet's unconquerable Boston Marriage, conquers here. She's funny from the very first words she utters. They're not particularly amusing, but Plimpton's affect is; her posture, her swagger, the swingy short bob are all laugh-provoking and uncannily convincing. She keeps it up even when she has to challenge the snake Lelio to a duel and make love to the countess. The scene in which she follows through on the latter maneuver has such an air of homoeroticism about it that, had Aubrey Beardsley seen it, he'd have gotten out his sketchbook instantly. Tina Benko is the other half of the on-stage near-smooch and, in her knockout panniered suit, she gives as good as she gets. Her characterization is as rich and finished as the burgundy outfit that she wears.
As the man who's out to ditch the Countess and hitch the Chevalier's supposed mistress, Jesse Pennington is full-blown caddishness itself. He struts with a sword at his side, delivering bon mots in a coxcomb's mellifluous, off-handed tones. Occasionally, he stands with his arm akimbo and hip hitched, as if he's been joyfully playing Marivaux all his actor's life. Bill Buell as Trivelin is equally comfortable with the play's style; looking like Richard Gere's beefier older brother, Buell gives a tongue-in-cheek, eyebrow-arched performance that's entirely in synch with the piece's lofty tone and, at the same time, is appealingly earthy. The entire ensemble, including Paul Lazar's comically beseeching Arlequin, honors the playwright's pithy lines. They deserve to prompt lines -- box-office lines -- for their Marivaux made easy.