If one is currently worrying about such non-laughing matters as the state of the world, one’s health, job or family (and that basically covers us all), that’s when being able to laugh matters most. I think playwright David Ives has somehow understood this conundrum for the past 25 years, providing audiences with plays full of cleverness and mirth when we need it most. So it practically goes without saying that 2018 is the perfect year for New Yorkers to view his deliciously silly The Metromaniacs, now being presented by Red Bull Theatre at the Duke on 42nd Street
The third of his recent adaptations of French comedies to hit our stages – following The Heir Apparent and The Liar – Ives’ lighter-than-air update of Alexis Piron’s little-known La Metromanie is directed with flair and precision by the great Michael Kahn and acted to a fare-thee-well by a superb, impressively committed cast.
Still, I will freely admit that trying to fully explain what happens in The Metromaniacs (simply but nicely designed by James Noone) falls between tiring and exhausting, what with many of the characters having false names (in addition to real ones) or impersonating each other, not to mention sometimes acting in a play within the play (which actually is also a play within a play). There are more plots here than in some cemeteries I’ve visited.
For example. take the one about Doumis (the handsome, charming Christian Conn), a poet and would-be-playwright who has abandoned his possible legal career, and is also now convinced he’s in love with a poetess he’s never met but whose (senseless) words he admires. He’s a fool perhaps, but one we easily empathize with.
The same words apply to his gracious host and fellow poet Francalou (the excellent Adam LeFevre), whose prime concern is not literary success but the happiness of his daughter Lucille (the hilarious Amelia Bedlow), a beautiful if bored young heiress who cares more for books than people – at least until she decides she’s in love (and lust) with the foppish Dorante (a priceless Noah Averbach-Katz).
Meanwhile, the wisest person in the room (albeit, the one who arrives latest) would initially appear be Doumis’ no-nonsense uncle, Belveau (the very fine Peter Kybart), a local judge who has arrived unexpectedly to harangue his nephew. But in most ways, he proves to be no match for Lucille’s whip-smart maid Lisette (the irresistible Dina Thomas), who finally succumbs to the questionable charms of Doumis’ wily manservant Mondor (a well-cast Adam Green) and is richly rewarded for her decision. (That revelation is related to one of the nifty surprises that Ives smartly hides in his back pocket until the play’s last scenes.)
As we watch these maniacs’ many machinations, there’s some talk about theater, much more about poetry, the occasional nod to politics and more than a few lessons in the lunacy of love. It’s all very smart and sounds even smarter when spoken in Ives’ often jaw-droppingly good rhymed couplets, which quickly seem to sound as regular to us as everyday lingo. (Yes, they are chock full of modern-day anachronisms, but why quibble?)
Still, Ives’ talent for wordplay aside, what makes The Metromaniacs work so well is how splendidly its seven performers manage to both inhabit their characters and dive head-on into this almost hopelessly convoluted story, while somehow silently assuring the audiences that they also realize the onstage goings-on make only a modicum of sense. Indeed, their ability to captivate us is more magical to me than anything going on steps away in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.