Jean-François Regnard is not a name that has been on everyone’s lips in recent years. But leave it to comic playwright David Ives to resurrect him and use one of Regnard’s plays as source for a spring production that lifts the entire season. And leave it further to the Classic Stage Company which makes its home in its gem of a small theatre behind a dinky coffee shop on East 3rd Street to stage it as beautifully as though it were the Theatre Guild of old, mounting it on Broadway with a company of fine actors, headed by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Ives and the CSC have collaborated before; this is his fourth production with them, and one of the previous ones was a Molière gem, The Misanthrope which, under Ives’ scalpel, emerged as The School for Lies last season. Once again, we who get to see the new work are enriched by the experience.
Regnard followed Molière as the great French writer of comedy for the Comédie- Française, and Le Legataire Universel (The Heir Apparent) in 1708 was his best known work and final full-length play before his death a year later. The French at that time must have found nothing funnier than the ups and downs of bodily functions, for both writers hit hard with scatalogical humor. Some of this may prove unattractive to our current taste, but as served up by David Ives, in rhyme no less, it had yours truly and everyone else in stitches. It’s not all scatalogical of course; there is all sorts of sexual suggestion, mistaken identity, a teeny tiny lawyer called Scruple, who is hired to write the final will and testicle, no – make that testament – of one old skinflint called Geronte. As played by the brilliant Paxton Whitehead and the equally miraculous David Pittu, Geronte and Scruple are the 17th century version of the oddest couple since Neil Simon’s Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.
They are surrounded by Madame Argante, as played by the elegant Suzanne Bertish with just the right amount of panache, and a quartet of young lovers, all of whom are after the old man’s fortune, which is why the signing of the will is so important before the old man gives up the ghost.
Messrs. Whitehead and Pittu have mastered the art of bravura acting without ever once slipping on to that slippery slope called “hamming it up.” No, their style includes truly listening to their co-players, then daring to chew up just enough scenery to have us doubled over with laughter. Ms. Bertish as well knows how to wear a long gown with flair, as though she wore one or two every day. And when she’s given a cutting remark to fling, she makes certain it hits its mark every time out.
The younger actors have their ways too, though not always so consistently are they on the mark. Amelia Pedlow and David Quay as the higher born of the two sets of lovers are just fine, and Claire Karpen and Carson Elrod as the working class couple are good too. Mr. Elrod might give some thought to keeping all that energy a bit more under control, particularly when he must pretend to be someone he isn’t, for when he bellows he doesn’t resemble the character he’s trying to emulate. I won’t say more, for it’s not that complicated a plot, and I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Once again, it’s John Lee Beatty (who seems to design a dozen great sets each season) who, with a chair here, a table there, a chandelier or two, manages to create a mansion for the miser Geronte, circa 1708, mostly by suggestion. It all looks lush and expensive, but there is as much imagination in it as there is actual furniture, and that leaves lots of space for the actors in which to have fun.
I was struck by the variety of this season in New York. In five nights I have seen a traditional musical comedy, an attempt to dramatize an excellent memoir, a fine modern play that is original and vivid, a one-woman biographical play with music that is absolutely first rate in all departments, and this intoxicating adaptation of a little known and very old French farce.
That’s like a five course meal with all the trimmings. And the rest of this season just ending, with its rich British imports, its incredible list of star turns, some by those better known for their work in film, with its transfers from the regional theatres across the nation, it speaks well for the health of our fabulous invalid, the living theatre.
I’m so happy to report that a new generation is beginning to realize that live theatre is a totally different experience from the ones they enjoy at rock concerts, at the movie complexes or dozing on their sofas as they have a look at reality shows, sports events and mini and mega series on the telly. With companies like the Classic Stage Company offering work of the caliber of The Heir Apparent, at affordable prices, it was great seeing so many young faces among the sold out crowd at the theatre on East 3rd Street.
The Heir Apparent is onstage through May 11, 2014 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.