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The False Servant

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mistaken identity. Comedic misunderstandings. Foolish servants hiding in absurd places. Money and status concerns. Lofty emotional idealism. Cross-dressing. What's not to love about French comedy? Well, when it's done the way that Classic Stage Company's new take on Pierre de Marivaux's The False Servant is, the answer is: more than you think.

One thing should be made clear; this isn't a completely laughless, lifeless production. The top-notch cast, which includes Martha Plimpton and Jesse Pennington, does everything it can to sell director Brian Kulick's take on Marivaux's 1724 comedy. (The translation used here is by Kathleen Tonan.) It can't legitimately be said that the performers miss the jokes or opportunities for dramatic or characterological insight.

It can, however, be said that Kulick has missed the point; instead of staging the show to entertain and provoke, he's staged it as if for a master's thesis project. His work is studied, analytical, and keenly intelligent, but also the coldest vision of the material imaginable, making everything seem as if you're secretly viewing the production from behind a two-way mirror. In terms of color, everything - from the actors' performances to the sets and costumes (both by Mark Wendland) and lighting (Kevin Adams) - has been rendered in varying combinations of black, white, and unfriendly.

Granted, The False Servant isn't one of Marivaux's funnier, romantic, or more accessible plays. In many ways it's so serious a piece of commentary that it could have been written as a social drama within the last 100 years or so and lost little relevance. It's drenched in cynicism and criticism about topics ranging from the bartering of love and marriage as commodities to gender identification and the eternally examined subject of male-female interactions.

So dense is this material that it's not always easy to locate the heart or soul underneath it all. Even so, Kulick never comes close. What he offers here instead is a lightning-paced, thoughtfully articulated examination of a relationship between a man named Lelio (Pennington) and a woman (Plimpton) that's threatened by his duplicity and her distrustfulness in which it's impossible to feel for either side of the argument.

Given Lelio's dispassionate attitude toward matters of the heart, the woman's course of action - dressing up as a man, Chevalier, to spy on Lelio - seems believable, even reasonable. So our sympathies naturally shift to the third player in this game, the Countess (Tina Benko), a pawn of both Lelio and Chevalier's machinations. But when her stony mannerisms, taut face, and secure stride can barely be moved by either passionate declarations or indignities, are we supposed to think that the true thrust of the play is Chevalier's temporary servant Trivelin (Bill Buell), who observes - and attempts to profit from - the reined-in ridiculousness unfolding around him?

This equitability even encompasses the physical production, which is beautiful to look at - the set consists primarily of an enormous wheeled cart on which are piled dozens of heavy trunks, the costumes are richly detailed reproductions of 18th-century garb - but exude no real personality of their own. (This is not helped by Adams's antiseptic lights.) Much the same is true of Buell, who employs especially generic-brand bluster to get through his scenes, and Benko, who maintains her emotionless Countess fašade with determination more rigid than Marivaux demands.

Pennington and Plimpton do much better, especially in their scenes together, which are without exception the production's funniest. Plimpton's severe expressions and sharply satirical take on masculinity contrast beautifully with Pennington's fey ruggedness; it seems as if an entire spectrum of gender stereotyping may be found in their performances. The rifle-like force she uses to spit out double-edged quips to defend herself, and the way he intently stares at various parts of her body attempting to discern her true gender when he grows to question it, are the kind of glimmering laugh-getters that this production could use many, many more of.

But it's not the comedy that serves or does serve The False Servant: Despite the fine work they do as a team, Plimpton and Pennington have no sexual chemistry together whatsoever, and that's heat that relationship plays - of the comic or message sort - can't do without. Despite the exquisite care with which he's staged the rest of the production, Kulick's work doesn't suggest an awareness that any necessary warmth is missing. Plimpton and Pennington do what they can to take off the chill, but this should production should announce in advance that jackets are required attire for all audience members - and the heavier the better.

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Classic Stage Company
The False Servant
Through May 8
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200