… triple play …
What a romp! What sheer fun! Moliere would have loved The School For Lies.
And what a record, three for three, for Classic Stage and David Ives:
- 2009: Classic Stage produces Ives’ brilliant play about Spinoza, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
- 2010: Classic Stage produces Ives’ Venus in Fur which was a big success and launched Nina Arianda into stardom (though I found it tiresome)
- 2011: Classic Stage produces Ives’ The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and they’re right back on brilliant
The School for Lies roughly follows Moliere’s The Misanthrope with Ives translating it into the words, rhythms, and catch-all phrases of today’s youth-slanted English — and these are very young characters. He’s discovered complete freedom of vocabulary — no word for word translation but every attempt, and success, at catching the sense of each line, its feeling, the characters’ pleasure in saying it and the impact on the hearer.
The effect in its way is pure Moliere. Ives bridges the 17th to 21st Centuries!
And, though perhaps less inventive, Ives is as witty as Moliere! Like The Misanthrope, The School for Lies is in rhyme — rhyming couplets, strings of internal rhymes, can-you-top-this? rhymes, punning rhymes, delayed rhymes that you wait for and that never disappoint on arrival — bringing a grin, a chortle, a guffaw, and a sigh of satisfaction.
We’re in Paris among aristocrats in the 17th Century. Well, we’re sort of there: the furnishings are of the time, and the characters wear gorgeous period costumes but they talk like us. Celimene is a spirited, witty recent widow and a flirt who loves society. Frank is an impulsive, sarcastic brooder, disdainful of humanity and its superficial social conventions — hugs in particular. He’s sort of a hippie, she’s a party girl, and yet they love, sparring like Annie and Frank in Annie Get Your Gun. The play abounds with rich characters, Philante, Frank’s friend with the “be reasonable, Frank” message who turns into a Queen ex machina; Clitander (fun and names) super rich and content with his stupidity; Oronte, whose dreadful poetry bears the brunt of Frank being frank, and others to entangle themselves in each others’ lies and loves.
This is a cast with great comic timing and marvelous expressions — subtle and broad as needed — Jenn Gambatese is particularly amusing as Elainte who loves … well, everybody here loves a few different people. The tall, tousled Hamish Linklater gives a vigorous and always humorous performance and he’s handsome so that we can believe Celimene falls in love with him against her better judgment. Mamie Gummer is persuasive as Celimene though the role could use more sparkle. Everybody’s good but I’d particularly mention Steven Boyer whose long-suffering deadpan in the role of two servants holds the play together — you’d think that particularl joke that goes along with him might be overdone, but it works every time.
I’ve seen The Misanthrope at the Pearl Theatre recently which prompts comparison: the stories and characters are similar but the differences are interesting — though I was so captivated by The School for Lies that these took awhile to sink in. In The School for Lies, the hero, Frank, speaks of his hatred of hypocrisy. In The Misanthrope, the parallel hero, Alceste, hates hypocrisy and injustice. And therein lies a tale. The School for Lies is focused on individuals, on the foibles of this group and the hilarity they engender. Injustice looms larger in The Misanthrope where, for all the laughter, one is always aware of the great power imbalances of the social structure and the insecurities they cause. All in all, The School for Lies is a less political play than The Misanthrope. In a way this is surprising, since Moliere, living and writing under the tight reign of Louis XIV, had two of his plays banned by the government, while Ives has nothing to lose.
(And those court cases often referred to are totally unclear to me in both plays.)
And Moliere’s play, for all of its exaggerated characterizations, is more realistic in terms of personalities and relationships, particularly in the more complex, anguished and genuinely philosophical character of Alceste, now Frank in The School for Lies. And speaking of realism, Frank impossibly turns out to be someone else — but it’s so wonderfully funny you wouldn’t want it any other way. These aspects give Moliere’s play the universality that inspires interpretations, adaptations, performances and other kinds of conversations with it in new generations — like The School for Lies. But The School for Lies has its own great wit and language.
The School for Lies plays at Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village through May 22; that’s too short a run for such an enjoyable play!