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The Liar

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 26, 2017

Tony Roach, Christian Conn, and Carson Elrod
Photo by Richard Termine

Playwright David Ives has long been adept at finding drama—however small the kernels of it may be—within the deepest comedy. All in the Timing, perhaps his signature work, may be an apologetic laugh fest, but it's the somber strains running beneath the skits that energize and elevate them. So it's fair to expect that with The Liar, Ives's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 1644 French farce, would do the same. Yet, as the production that just opened at Classic Stage Company proves, Ives can, in fact, sometimes see laughter as its own reward. And when he does, it's a challenge for you to not do the same, even if the stretch marks are occasionally evident.

Not that this applies to the setup, which is sufficiently timeless that it could fuel any number of sitcoms until time immemorial (and probably has already). Dorante meets two friends, Clarice and Lucrece, on the streets of Paris, and decides to pursue the former under the impression that she's the latter. Absurdity ensues, in no small part because he is, as the title character, incapable of telling the truth—he weaves every story to suit a certain end rather than explain the world as it is. Paired with a manservant, Cliton, who cannot tell a lie, separating fact from fiction—and getting every person properly paired off—is no simple task.

The rhyming pentameter from which Ives has constructed nearly all of his dialogue (unsurprisingly) proves a natural fit for the myriad zany complications of the heart, head, and other bodily environs that result from all this. Take this exchange from the potential lovers' first meeting:

Clarice: "However sweet your manual sensation, / This hand's not meant, monsieur, for your palpation."
Dorante: "O fickle fortune! Just a meet-and-greet? / These digits frigid? That’s too bittersweet."
Clarice: "Alas, sir, happiness is not like Sterno. / One match and you have hatched a small inferno."
Dorante: "Thus happiness can always use a push. / A bird in hand, you know. Two in the bush…"

Romantic, ribald, classical, modern, lyrical, thumping—Ives maintains, amplifies, and deconstructs these contradictions countless times across the two-hour evening, somehow exploring every conceivable permutation (including, at the climax, one you're conditioned to believe impossible) among nine sharply defined characters without ever wearing out the gimmick's lilting welcome.

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod
Photo by Richard Termine

When the execution grates, it's because Ives shirks the high standards he's set for himself; in a universe as musical as this one, false rhymes (time/climbs, Adonis/honest, dazed/haze, virgins/surgeon, and plenty of others) are the equivalent of bum notes from a professional musician: Because you know they shouldn't happen, they make it that much harder to hear everything that's right around them. One could easily quibble, too, with parts of the draggy second act, and particularly the final scene, which stretches credulity from here to Jupiter in wrapping up the narrative. (I'm not sure any play these days should resolve complications with either secret identical twins or coincidental tattoos; Ives deploys both.) Otherwise, Ives is in fine form, his writing lively and his plotting smart, integrating a few key departures from Corneille, mostly to better comport with contemporary theatrical sensibilities.

The staging from Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. (where this play premiered in 2010), is grounded yet zippy, so you're always believably coexisting in both the real and the ridiculous. Murell Horton has provided an eye-grabbing collection of period costumes as passed through a Technicolor filter, Mary Louise Geiger's lights flood the playing space with the proper jolts of excitement, and the original music (from Adam Wernick) adroitly captures the proceedings' innate jauntiness. Only Alexander Dodge's sets, which project a dullish, low-budget vibe without embracing a firm point of view (why do the paintings look like an unpaid intern Photoshopped Roy Lichtenstein?), seem at odds with the rest of the production.

Christian Conn is a devilishly good Dorante, locating every possible drop of sincerity within a man who could not begin to understand the meaning of the word. Tony Roach brings a billowing swath of wry bravado to Clarice's fiancé, Alcippe. (Both actors created their roles, and their bone-deep familiarity with them is thrillingly evident throughout.) Ismenia Mendes and Amelia Pedlow craft Clarice and Lucrece with lush, bold strokes and understated gaiety that let them shine even though they're a bit removed from ground zero of the silliness. Kelly Hutchinson, Aubrey Deeker, and Adam Lefevre bring robust commitment to their smaller roles, rounding out the company's periphery with attractive and intricate detail.

Perhaps no one onstage represents The Liar better than Carson Elrod, who, as Cliton, embodies the concept's playfulness with an unabashed love for the unusual. From his opening speech ("Ladies and gentlemen! Mesdames, messieurs! / All cell phones off? All cellophane secure? / Please note, for an emergency, the exit. / We're set! We've stowed our snacks, we've peed, we've sexted."—ick, there's another one of those non-rhymes) to the lying lesson with Dorante that supercharges the start of Act II, he's as masterful at ejecting jokes from his voice as from his constantly moving, clay-like limbs.

In other words, he succeeds for the same reason Ives does: because he takes his comedy seriously. That's why it doesn't matter if The Liar is intellectually or socially redeeming. Ives so wants it to be the best badness it can be, you'll never for a second feel like you're being shortchanged.

The Liar
Through February 26
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix