David Ives adapts a 17th-century French comedy about an arrogant man who cannot tell the truth.
Language was a lot less squishy in 1643. That was when French playwright Pierre Corneille wrote Le Menteur, which has been adapted by David Ives into The Liar, now making its New York debut at Classic Stage Company. Through gentle wit and lyrical dexterity, Ives honors the spirit of Corneille's comic precision. Even if the play isn't the laugh-out-loud comedy of the year, it comes as a welcome respite from our postmodern age of words without meaning.
The ultracontrived story unfolds entirely in rhyming verse: Dorante (Christian Conn) is a law student who poses as a war hero in order to impress Clarice (Ismenia Mendes), a woman he meets in the Tuileries Garden. Or is she Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow)? Dorante sends his servant, Cliton (Carson Elrod), to confer with Lucrece's maid, Isabelle (Kelly Hutchinson). She distinguishes Clarice and Lucrece by insisting that the latter is the greater beauty — a truth that could legitimately be called subjective. Flattering his own superior taste, Dorante decides Lucrece must be the one he originally flirted with (it was Clarice). This mix-up is made even more urgent by the fact that his father, Geronte (Adam Lefevre), has arranged for Dorante to marry Clarice. The son wriggles out of the father's careful plans by unleashing a deluge of new lies. Meanwhile, the real Clarice is secretly engaged to Dorante's friend, Alcippe (Tony Roach). Oh, and Lucrece's maid Isabelle has an identical twin sister named Sabine (also Hutchinson), who serves Clarice. Got all that?
It's an extravagantly baroque setup for such an ultimately unspectacular display of fireworks. Ives' adaptation is slow to get off the ground, like an An-225 hurtling down the runway at LaGuardia. We're never sure if it's going to fly, and once it does, ever so briefly in the second act, the sight is lackluster. As is typical in comedies from this era, all of the confusion and deception is quickly swept away by a breezy quadruple wedding, letting us know just how low the stakes always were.
This isn't to say that comedy for comedy's sake isn't worthwhile, or even vital. Ives clearly wants to make us laugh, and he often succeeds: He seems to have the ability to pull rhymes out of thin air, having Dorante wax on about "succubi with hearts like harps to pluck you by." And when the author's in a crunch, he trots out modern words, like "brunch." The effect is humorous, producing plenty of knowing chuckles and a few honest guffaws. Unfortunately, it never culminates in the tear-producing belly laugh we truly crave from unapologetic comedy.
Director Michael Kahn makes up some of the difference with a caffeinated staging that keeps the ornate plot churning along while allowing space for the performers to shine. As is often the case with this genre, the help runs away with the show. Elrod is a veteran of Ives and this style of acting, having appeared in his most recent Comédie-Française adaptation at Classic Stage, The Heir Apparent. He's the only one who seems fully at ease and even natural in rhyming verse. Hutchinson gives the other standout performance as night-and-day twins Isabelle and Sabine: Isabelle is coquettish and sweet while amateur dominatrix Sabine walks like a truck driver and wields a ruler for thwacking stupid men.
Alexander Dodge's set is a blank canvas in a rococo frame, capturing the feel of the piece while also staying out of the way. The actors glide across the herringbone parquet floor in their ostentatious shoes and lacy collars. Costume designer Murell Horton thrillingly pays special attention to footwear, designing boots with spurs and multiple flapping tongues to contribute to the musketeer couture worn by the male actors. The women wear ornamental gowns in metallic grey and champagne, a lavish if somewhat synthetic look. It jibes with Adam Wernick's transitional compositions, which helps us imagine what it would be like if Bach wrote the incidental music for Candy Crush.
The culmination of these efforts is a diverting, visually sumptuous, but only mildly funny evening at the theater. Despite a great effort on the part of the performers and designers, The Liar is not nearly as over-the-top as it needs to be when competing with a reality that daily proves itself even more implausible and ridiculous.