Is anything more entertaining to watch – at least on stage – than a loveable rapscallion who cheerfully cheats and prevaricates his way to fame and fortune? Well, yes, there’s his almost inevitable bringdown as his own schemes end up trapping him and he gets his comeuppance. Pierre Corneille’s little-performed 17th-century comedy Le Menteur gets a scintillating update in the Classic Stage Company’s new production of The Liar that keeps both legs of the liar’s trajectory lively and compelling.
With the amiable narration of Cliton (Carson Elrod), who almost immediately signs up to be the servant of the titular smooth-talking Doronte (Christian Conn), we follow the amatory adventures of the self-styled liar as he spies the lady he decides is the love of his life – Clarice (Ismenia Mendes) or possibly her more reserved friend Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow) – and conceives a plan to pursue her. His obstacles: His doltish, jealous friend Alcippe (Tony Roach) turns out to be secretly engaged to Clarice, and his father Geronte (Adam LeFevre) is busily trying to set up an advantageous marriage for his son, which may or may not be with the object of his affections. Add in the fact that Clarice and Lucrece each have their own plans for the future – and no aversion to some devious machinations to get there – as well as maidservants of very different temperaments who are, nonetheless, identical sisters (Kelly Hutchinson), and the scene is set for a mischievous romantic comedy – though one that could, in less capable hands, seem less classic than, well, corny.
Corneille, of course, is better known as a tragedian (Le Cid) than a writer of comedy, but he did dabble in levity, too, as this work illustrates. Fortunately, the play is saved from fustiness by what playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur) has reportedly called his “translaptation” of the original work – and it certainly puts the slap in play. The rowdy, modern rewrite (circa 2010) plays with language and period, incorporating Shakespearean quotations and modern references alike in a tongue-in-cheek tour de force. Instead of Corneille’s alexandrines, Ives’ characters speak rhymed couplets in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, but Ives takes such glee in the form that even though it may occasionally sound forced, it’s never fustian. To wit: Cliton says, “If she was born to lie, I’d be elated,” and his boss responds, “Liars aren’t born, Cliton. They’re fabricated.” Bright and brash, a clever counterpoint to a sometimes less than surprising plot, the witty wordplay is reason enough to see the play. But not the only reason.
Director Michael Kahn wisely keeps this boisterous comedy barreling forward at a breakneck pace. And though the speed and the sparkle can be a little overwhelming, there are even a few surprisingly moving moments of respite. Perhaps because we don’t expect too much of characters who are barely more than stock figures, the fast-talking cast easily wins us over – and even manages a few moments of deeper emotion, as when the cocky Dorante is left crestfallen by his father’s disappointment. The tightly woven, hardworking ensemble does a highly creditable job in general, but among its worthy members, three stand out: Pedlow brings a spark to the relatively staid Lucrece that explains her appeal to Dorante as well as her very sensible reluctance to fall for him (and her ultimately doing so). Hutchinson’s delightfully daffy turn as the two sisters – one eager for Cliton’s advances, the other appalled by them – is entirely charming. And Elrod’s Cliton – cursed by Ives with an inability to lie – provides a perfect foil for his master as well as an able interpreter for the audience. He’s always at home in the period, yet no one’s words feel fresher and more to the point than the happy-go-lucky manservant’s. Truth be told, his wryly delivered homespun honesty alone could make the show.