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Theatre in Review: The Liar (Classic Stage Company)

Kelly Hutchinson, Carson Elrod. Photo: Richard Termine

Dishonesty is the best policy in The Liar, at least when it comes to delighting the audience. The title character, Dorante, a handsome, adventure-seeking young fellow, is new in town -- the town being Paris, 1643 -- and is eager to make an impression. And does he ever: He swears he has spent four years in the military, killing German soldiers. "That's how I got this scar along my jaw," he adds, pointing to a nonexistent wound. He spins fantasies of seduction on a luxurious barge, with elements that include a 15-course meal, five blindfolded virgins acting as servers, and fireworks that "penetrate the gloom/Then, moaning, spill their luminescent spume." He invents a bloody dueling past ("I needn't tell you why he hated me/It was a night at cards in Paraguay/A girl named Peepa, too much bootleg rye.") And even though he is busily pursuing a young lady, he concocts a preexisting marriage recounting a wild tale of seduction, an outraged father, gunplay, a failed escape, and a battering ram. How much does he relish these whoppers? "The unimagined life's not worth living," he insists.

As he has done with other seventeenth-century French comedies, David Ives has capitalized on the central situation -- in this case, from Le Menteur, by Pierre Corneille -- surrounding his pathological liar with a compulsively honest servant; an easily befuddled father; a pair of sweet young things with the easily mixed-up names Clarice and Lucrece; Clarice's jealous, none-too-bright lover; and identical twin maidservants of sharply differing temperaments, putting them all through a maze of mistaken identities, romantic intrigues, and lies, lies, lies -- all delivered in glittering iambic pentameter. Unlike Richard Wilbur, whose Molière translations have a polished, high-comedy shine, Ives is a master burlesque comedian, taking delight in sheer shamelessness. Cliton, giving directions to Dorante, says, "Champs Elysées, my friend, lies that-a-way/Unless the Louvre has mouvred since yesterday." Explaining his addiction to dishonesty, Dorante says, "A man starts spooning tales of sweet amour/I have to make that man my dupe du jour." The skeptical Clarice, quoting from a love note written by Dorante, says, "Oh, poor Lucrece. You don't believe this boy?/"Joy, rapture..." Every word is pure trompe l'oeil!"

And then there's this exchange, between Alcippe, Clarice's lover, and his friend Philiste:

Philiste: All that about his mistress was a lie.

Alcippe: There's no libidinous creature from Aix?

Philiste: A feature of his inner multiplex.

As you can see, the references ricochet between the court of Louis XIV and the most recent edition of Variety, and Michael Kahn's fast-paced, expertly cartooned production is filled with actors who know how to make the most of this comic cognitive dissonance. Watch the zest with which Christian Conn's Dorante piles one untruth on top of another, lying for the sheer joy of it, lying when telling the truth would be simpler and easier -- and yet never losing his hold on our affections. He has the ideal partner in Carson Elrod as Cliton, valet for hire and emcee for the proceedings, who looks on in stupefaction as Dorante entangles everyone in his web of deception, cracking wise at every opportunity. (Responding to Dorante's insistence that he speaks ten languages, including "Middle Yiddish," Cliton snaps, "I stand here, you spoon out your truth tartare!") The scene in which Dorante tries to teach Cliton to lie is pure Abbott and Costello, a beautiful thing of crossed wires and missed cues.

As Clarice, the tougher cookie of the play's two ingenues, Ismenia Mendes forces the fun a little -- and her voice is currently showing the strain -- but she has her moments, whether gazing coolly upon Dorante from above, studying his modus operandi with opera glasses, or -- as part of yet another charade -- feeding him fulsome romantic sentiments over a garden wall. As Lucrece, her sister in intrigue, Amelia Pedlow has the right antic spirit, pointedly trying to cough the two of them out of an embarrassing social situation and furiously removing shredded bits of a love letter from her ample bosom. Tony Roach's Alcippe is strapping, hot-headed, and remarkably thick in the skull; just watch him as he finds himself engaged in a duel with Dorante -- executed without swords. (You'll have to see for yourself.) Kelly Hutchinson is a reliably amusing double act as the twin servants, one wreathed in smiles, the other a dominatrix, both of them equipped with a solid left cross when dealing with Cliton. (As he notes, "You talk about a maid with je ne sais quoi -- This girl's a ready-made ménage à trois!") Aubrey Deeker has an assured way with Ives' impudent couplets as Philiste. And as Geronte, Dorante's infinitely good-willed father, Adam LeFevre is a human cloud of unknowing, passing over the action, serenely out of it. Alcippe, surprised to run into him, asks, "Why are you here?" "On earth?" Geronte asks, suddenly waxing philosophical.

The mischief unfolds on Alexander Dodge's spare, elegant classical set, which, with the addition of a chandelier and a painting, can switch from the Tuileries Garden to the interior of a hôtel particulier, all lit in delicate pastels by Mary Louise Geiger. Murell Horton has supplied stunning, sumptuously draped gowns for the ladies and elaborately detailed suits for the men, including matching gloves, boots, and hats. (Dorante, who tries too hard, first appears in an outfit so overdone that Cliton subjects it to a "lace-ectomy.") Matt Stine's sound system provides solid reinforcement for Adam Wernick's incidental music, a witty pastiche of period styles.

The fun rarely flags, right through to the confetti-strewn finale, which comes complete with lovers conjoined and the requisite bombshell revelation of a hidden relationship. Some reviews have noted the extreme timeliness of The Liar, but you'll find no essays about fake news here, even if Ives does get off a couple of good ones about lawyers and politicians. Ives' arrant japery can be enjoyed entirely for its tonic qualities. Whatever century you're in, hilarity never goes out of style. -- David Barbour

(2 February 2017)

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