Monday, May 02, 2011

THEATER: The School for Lies

The School for Lies, according to playwright David Ives (who is freely and triumphantly riffing off of Moliere's masterpiece, The Misanthrope), is just another way of describing polite society. It's because of this that Frank (Hamish Linklater), both in name and attitude, finds himself at odds with friends like Philante (Hoon Lee); romantic rivals like the pretentious poet Oronte (Rick Holmes), as-rich-as-he-is-stupid Acaste (Matthew Maher), and overstimulated Clitander (Frank Harts); and the woman of everyone's affection, the wry, witty, and widowed Celimene (Mamie Gummer). Thankfully, even the Franks (or Grinches) in the audience will have to admit -- without the need for poetic flattery -- that Ives, no stranger to wordsmithery, has struck comic gold with his playful adaptation. Additionally, while the play's set in the past -- if you trust William Ivey Long's bright and flowering period costumes -- the language goes wherever it needs to for a laugh, "urban" or "valley girl" or intentionally artsy ("You trust a fecaphile to smell your roses!"). Like Celimene's cousin, Elainte (Jenn Gambatese), you'll be so taken by the refreshing tone that you'll feel the urge to throw yourself at the play (which, to be fair, is pretty much what the full-bodied cast is doing).

The truth is, this production is so perfectly cast that Gummer comes across as the weakest of the bunch: she's surrounded by veterans like Alison Fraser, who writes on the floor in fits of hysteric "piety" as the hypocritical Arsinoe, and physical jesters like Steven Boyer (of Jollyship the Whiz-Bang), who plays two set-upon (and sometimes sat-upon) servants. And director Walter Bobbie, a long-time collaborator with Ives, does no wrong with this meaty script: he brings the antics of the staging (canapes everywhere!) up to those of the script, normalizing what might seem ridiculous; you can see the rhyming verses bouncing through the cast, particularly in Linklater, who at times seems to convulse his lines. Such direction has a charmingly disarming effect, for though School for Lies is (in more ways than one) a throwback, the breakneck pace makes it feel fresh and invigorating. (You might credit the farcical twists of the new ending, as well as the scaling back of the social satire in favor of insult-humor that's turned up to eleven.)

It's a good thing I don't have a copy of the script, or I might simply quote the thing at length, and such a fate might be all too cruel a tease for your theaterbuds (especially since tickets are bound to be difficult to find). Frank, who claims to work as a theater critic (and would make the world's worst), considers the empty words of friendship to be toxic, and he's not wrong; who, in this Facebook era, does not feel as "promiscuous as a bedpan"? But the solution isn't to shut it all down; it's to pick your words as carefully as Ives has, so that when you try to rave about the utter enjoyment of losing oneself in the words, you don't get lost in a lie.

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