Ives Revives a Comic Liar (And It’s Not You-Know-Who)

Christian Conn and Tony Roach in The Liar.. Photo: Richard Termine.

No, you cynics. The Liar is not about the recently elected new President with supporting roles for Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer. It absolutely isn’t that, even if there’s an early use of the word “twitter” and later the word “emolument.”

What The Liar is is David Ives’s thorough field-day adapting Le Menteur, an obscure 1644 comedy by French tragedian Pierre Corneille. It’s not out of line to suggest that all plays by Corneille are obscure. When’s the last time you saw one? Tony Kushner adapted one called The Illusion, so maybe that one. Perhaps this is why set designer Alexander Dodge places a shiny bust of Corneille on a ledge on the upstage wall in this production at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company.

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Dorante (Christian Conn) appears in Paris, fresh from the city of Poitiers, with Cliton (Carson Elrod), his manservant. Immediately he spots BFFs Clarisse (Ismenia Mendes) and Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow), whose rhyming names set the whimsical tone. Dorante has fallen for Clarisse but doesn’t recognize it. Or perhaps he does. Either way, he also thinks he’s gaga for Lucrece — for whom his friend and rival, Alcippe (Tony Roach), also has the Gallic hots.

At least I think that’s what transpires in the busy, full-of-cross-purposes plot. There’s Philiste (Aubrey Deeker), a friend to Dorante and Alcippe; Geronte (Adam LeFevre), Dorante’s bamboozled father; and twin servants — one sweet, one extremely sour — Isabelle and Sabine (Kelly Hutchinson, frequently changing her wigs, created by J. Jared Janas, in seconds).

Alcippe also has the Gallic hots

Dorante lies about any number of things as he goes about snaring the attention of his female target(s). His chronic dissembling includes plenty of misinformation, such as already being married and already fathering a son. Please don’t ask for more details — and how they gum up the works before everything irons out to everyone’s satisfaction with no fewer than four weddings impending. One of the nuptials involves Cliton and Sabine. Or was it Cliton and Isabelle? Oh, don’t ask me. Events were moving fast.

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What wasn’t happening so fast as to not mesmerize were the rhymed couples Ives devised. In his prior revisions of such plays as The School for Lies and The Heir Apparent (both mounted at Classic Stage), he’s shown a facility, not to say genius, for turning centuries-old manuscripts into today’s vernacular. It’s nothing for Ives to find hilarious rhymes for ”dentifrice” and “floss.” He finds a way to couple “phylum” with “asylum.” At one point there’s an extended metaphor about sea creatures. One character coos to another: “You may be a bivalve, but you’re my valve.”

Ives is also topical. A character refers to his thoughts process as his “inner multiplex.” There are hearty laughs when a character is asked how he learned what he’s learned. “By going to the theater,” he quips. Ives isn’t averse to appropriating William Shakespeare. Later, a character requests that all Shakespeare allusions cease.

Ives’ infinite jokes land consistently because they’re so well played. That is the hand director Michael Kahn. It’s no surprise — at least not to anyone aware of classical theater today. Kahn has been artistic director of Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company since 1986, and has, in his career, twice walked off with Tonys for regional theaters, and he ran the drama program at the Juilliard School for more than 20 years, having joined the faculty back in 1968.

Another way of putting this is that at a time when American actors can be deficient at performing the classics, those who’ve studied under, or worked with, Kahn, have style securely under their belts.

Kahn originally mounted Ives’ translation-adaptation of The Liar in DC in 2010; this revival features some of the original cast. The director takes obvious care that Ives’ crackling lines trip off the actors’ tongues so felicitously that audience members often cheer. Everything is lickety-split, all the more entertaining for being so.

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The stand-out performance is a revolving door — it’s whomever is speaking at the time, be it Conn or Roach or Deeker or LeFevre or Mendes or Pedlow. Or Hutchison, as she ducks in and out of the wings to swap a coif. They’re all flawless. They’re happy proof that a young contingent of stateside actors are prepped to attack and conquer classical comedy.

Still, special praise must go out to Elrod. A forever-reliable stage clown, he’s a stitch. The beauty of this long-nosed, long-jawed, loose-limbed performer is that he always seems to throw his lines or even his lean body away. Watch him declare, early on in the play, “Honesty — it’s all I’ve got.” He’s one of those actor whose very name in the program promises unremitting fun.

Carson Elrod is a stitch.

actaAt first glance, The Liar appears anything but political — odd for Corneille, whose politics were woven inextricably into his tragedies. Ives does, however, get around to it eventually. Towards the end, when Dorante fesses up to his lying ways and days, he ponders what he’ll take up next. After offering a moral that The Liar is not about a liar wising up, he considers an acting career. Then he wonders if he might become a politician. There can be no audience member who doesn’t instantly think about the king of mendacity now occupying the White House. As the bold and brassy play ends, it is possible to imagine the glib Dorante as, say, a cabinet nominee awaiting Senate confirmation.