The Art of Lying -- Review of The Liar at Westport Country Playhouse

By Brooks Appelbaum

The name David Ives inevitably brings up memories of All in the Timing, his first huge hit, which, in 1995 -- 1996, was the second most produced play in the country, following Shakespeare’s works. Can this possibly be true? And can it also be true that during the 2013-2014 season, productions of Ives’ Venus in Fur also came second only to productions of Shakespeare? And speaking of Shakespeare, can Ives truly have created much of his remarkably successful career by translating, adapting, rescuing, re-tooling, or -- and he says this himself -- respectfully ripping off the tales and ideas of other authors (duly cited, of course)?

Indeed, every word above is true. So it should come as no surprise that The Liar, Ives’s version of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy, (itself based on a Spanish play of apparently deserved obscurity) is actually a comedic and ironic meditation on the truth. Naturally, its main character, Dorante (the skilled and unexpectedly sweet Aaron Krohn) spins lie after lie as his very mode of being. Yet Dorante (read Ives) deeply understands not only the necessity of lies as we construct the facets of ourselves, but also the more profound ways in which lies make life not only pleasurable, but bearable.

However, enough of these philosophical musings! This is French farce, and we come to Ives, for the most part, seeking hilarity. The Liar, beautifully directed by Penny Metropulos and performed by a stellar cast, provides laughter in every line. Ives has rendered Corneille’s play in verse, following the original. And far from becoming tedious, the verse only augments the fun -- especially when Ives twists syllables to rhyme, or adds in just enough anachronisms to keep the language zany and surprising. The cast, for its part, enables one to forget about the verse within minutes, except when the playwright wants us to remember.

Of course, The Liar concerns, well, a liar. Whenever Dorante finds himself in a tight spot -- or simply when he’s making conversation -- the most elaborate, overblown, completely fictitious fantasies spring from his imagination, fully formed. For instance, when he wishes to impress a friend, Alcippe (the very funny Philippe Bowgen), with his amorous triumphs, the description of a night with a certain lady is so outrageously, deliciously filled with double entendre, that all of us -- except Alcippe -- nearly forget that said lady is engaged to this friend. A detail, a detail, amidst such verbal riches!

Indeed one beauty of The Liar is that the audience has no time to grow weary while waiting for the characters to unmask the truth we already know, since Dorante spins so many extravagant stories. Another beauty is that the women, far from being ornamental objects of the men’s desire, are, if anything, wittier, cleverer, and more determined in their goals than are the men.

Monique Barbee plays Lucrece, the initially quiet friend of the more garrulous and showy beauty, Clarice (Kate MacCluggage). Arguably, Barbee has the more difficult role, and she plays Lucrece’s depths with sensitivity and grace. MacCluggage’s charisma (she was a marvelous witch in the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage production of Bell, Book, and Candle) derives from her palpable joy in acting and from her expert fun with the language.

Also expert is Rebekah Brockman, who gave us such a poignant Thomasina in this past fall’s Arcadia at Yale Repertory Theatre. Brockman plays identical twin ladies’ maids, one sensual and the other sanctimonious (and especially quick with a hard slap). The object of Isabelle’s desire and Sabine’s scorn is Cliton, Dorante’s hapless servant, as compulsively honest as Dorante is compulsively mendacious. Completing the cast is Brian Reddy, very funny as Dorante’s father, and Jay Russell as Philiste, friend and advisor to the hotheaded Alcippe.

Matching the wit of the script and the sparkle of the cast is a set design by Kristen Robinson that is at once very French, very modern, and delicious to look at: the light green trees put one in mind of pistachio sorbet. The furnishings -- black and white, spare and elegant -- make for precisely choreographed set changes done, by the cast, to French music (designed by David Budries) that sounds like a mix of hip-hop and 1980’s electronic dance tunes. The lighting design (Matthew Richards) heightens our sense of being in a disco-inflected present. And Jessica Ford’s costumes -- as crazily beautiful for the men as they are for the women -- complete our transportation to a colorfully unreal world.

Which brings us back to lying, fantasy, and theater. On several occasions, characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, making us complicit in the act of lying. In one of these memorable addresses, Dorante (again, read Ives) even dips into the subject of existential despair, dodging out of it with a comforting lightness of touch. Certainly, The Liar can be enjoyed as simple, silly farce, but the philosophical questions keep us talking after the laughter has evaporated in the cool, spring air.

The Liar by David Ives
Adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille
Directed by Penny Metropulos
Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Voice & Text Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Set Design: Kristen Robinson; Sound Design: David Budries; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Costume Design: Jessica Ford; Props Master: Karin White; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, May 5-23, 2015

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