"Maybe given my brains and disposition, I'll immigrate and be a politician." So says Dorante, the titular fabulist at the center of David Ives' adaptation of Corneille's The Liar now playing at Classic Stage Company. I saw it on a drizzly Inauguration Day, and what a relief it was to have some French farce -- and in rhymed couplets, no less!
I won't get too political beyond this as the play itself isn't. Ives' laissez faire reworking of the 17th-century play, only amended with some new scenes and subplots, is a theatrical confection. Six months in Paris, Dorante (Christian Conn in a powerhouse performance) employs a servant, Cliton (a waggish Carson Elrod) to aid in his flirtations. The two are well matched. Like the gatekeepers to hell and heaven from that old riddle, Cliton cannot tell a lie and Dorante can't help but lie, and does so immediately, wooing the comely Clarice (Ismenia Mendes) with fake tales of his campaigns in Germany -- really he's a reformed law student. But, of course, there's a hitch. Dorante thinks Clarice's name is "Lucrece," the name of her friend (Amelia Pedlow).
The usual tropes and tricks spin out from here. Clarice is involved with the hotheaded Alcippe (Tony Roach) and Dorante unwittingly boasts to him about taking her on an erotic boat ride in an uproarious speech filled with florid citrus fruit metaphors and "luminescent spume" -- another lie, naturally. Meanwhile, Dorante's father, Geronte (the remarkable Adam LeFevre), is trying to set up a match between Clarice and Dorante. Dorante refuses, not knowing that Clarice is really the one he has his eye on, and fibs about being married to a gypsy. On the subplot side, Philiste (Aubrey Deeker) and Clarice's maid Sabine (Kelly Hutchinson, who also plays Cliton's love interest, Sabine's twin, Isabelle -- both marvelously) are in a social strata-breaking love affair. From here the machinations of mistaken identity, letter-writing and swashbuckling and Cyrano-like line-feeding move like a well-oiled machine that's better witnessed than outlined.
Under the crisp direction of Michael Kahn the players bound about the stage, admirably agile and casual in costume designer Murell Horton's wonderful spurs, plumed hats and bodices and J. Jared Janas' wigs. Ives' translation is extremely accomplished in its meter and rhyme and is littered not only with modern references to Sterno, Chanel perfume and contact lenses, but dramaturgical Easter eggs (a Molière hat tip and countless lines of Shakespeare appear -- the last a tic Ives is aware of and calls himself out on a good bit). The nexus of the modern and the period are realized in Alexander Dodge's scenic design -- a blue parquet floor and an eye-catching doored wall (French doors, but of course) perforated with Ben-Day dots done up in silver and colored nicely by Mary Louise Geiger's lighting -- and a harpsichord-pop score by Adam Wernick.
As a survival guide for the next four years, maybe fight fire with fire. Take Dorante's advice: speak with verve, pepper accounts with irrelevant details and never, ever tell the truth.