David Ives does it again — almost. His earlier adaptation of Moliere’s le Misanthrope (1666), renamed The School for Lies (reviewed here in 2011) was an orgy of unending laughter. This adaptation of Regnard’s le Légataire Universel (1708) which he renames The Heir Apparent isn’t as successful although Ives follows his same rules of mod transformation, because Regnard’s play falls short of the brilliance of le Misanthrope.
So what does David Ives “do” with these late sixteenth and early seventeenth century French plays?
He translates them into completely contemporary lingo, without any inhibitions or unnecessary reverence for “The Past,” unworried about “anachronism,” using contemporary slang and turns of phrase, and in a spectacular rush of imagination invents contemporary in-jokes in place of the in-jokes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that today would seem like out-jokes, or be missed. He’s tremendously witty! Meanwhile, he holds to the past in the costumes and, with titillating ambiguity, in the decor, and for the plot maintains the rules, regulations, customs and laws of the 16th and 17th centuries, all of which, coming up against the contemporary language and modern references, create a delicious cognitive dissonance.
Thanks to David Ives, these plays come to us more themselves than they would be in literal word-for-word translations. They’re as good as they were in their own day which in the case of Moliere means marvelous, less so for Regnard.
Jean-François’ Regnard was a reigning comic playwright of the Comédie-Français after Moliere; this is his best known work. The situation is that a rich old man, Geronte, appears to be dying and his poor nephew, Eraste, is angling for his fortune, which will enable him to marry the beautiful Isabelle. Obstacles arise for Eraste including the varied set of characters seeking the dying man’s fortune who appear and, in some amusing scenes, claim in one preposterous way or another to be long lost relatives.
The biggest obstacle of all is that the tough old geezer, much as he seems on his last legs, simply doesn’t die. Crispin the servant, facilitator to the core, invents clever schemes to help Eraste whose own inability to do anything for himself makes him a less than sympathetic character as a lover, which I found a weakness in the play. Who cares if this jerk gets the girl or not?
Much of the early part of the play (at least it seemed to go on a long time) centers around old man Geronte’s problems with his plumbing: there’s lots of tiresome scatological joking and horsing around. Instead of an amusingly extreme aspect of character (such as one would find in Moliere), we’re stuck with Geronte’s extreme digestive problems, but Paxton Whitehead, abandoning any vestige of narcissism, gives his all to the rather repulsive role and, when called for, produces an impressive of physical transformation. By the end of the play, the characters’ situations have changed but — in contrast to le Misanthrope — they haven’t learned much.
The most interesting character is Scruple — the short lawyer of briefs — acted by David Pittu who plays it like José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1952 John Huston film, The Moulin Rouge — on his knees. He’s also responsible for the most hilarious scene in which the attorney, a true professional, is drawing up his client’s will while oblivious to false identities — always good for laughs, and Pittu’s intelligent but obtuse sober mien adds to the fun.
Carson Elrod is energetic and amusing as Crispin, the man of many devices and “a whole comédie-française in himself.” Suzanne Bertsch is appropriately imperious as Isabelle’s mother.
See The Heir Apparent and you’ll enjoy it, but you don’t “have to see” it the way I felt you “had” to see The School for Lies. (I saw it twice just so somebody else who’d miss it otherwise could see it once.)
The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage Company in New York City’s East Village through May 4th, 2014.