In The Liar, the title character wonders whether, given his disposition, he should become a politician. But, if David Ives’ version of Pierre Corneille’s 1644 verse play may benefit from new relevance (what I call the Trump Effect), its main strength lies not in its timeliness or plot but the subversive whimsy of its language.
“Champs Elysees, my friend, lies that-a-way, Unless the Louvre has mouvred since yesterday.”
That’s the servant Cliton (Carson Elrod), who cannot tell a lie, talking to his new master Dorante (Christian Conn), who cannot tell the truth – or at least never wants to.
In his 21st century take on iambic pentameter, Ives rhymes “exit” with “sexted,” “idea” with “diarrhea,” and “muck” with “schmuck.” And he deliberately mangles Shakespeare: “But soft! What light on yonder sidewalk cracks!”
I can’t remember a play in which the playwright so obviously enjoyed his own cleverness, while at the same mocking his efforts. In bouts of meta-theatrical playfulness, he ropes in his characters to grapple with the challenge of the versifying, which is sometimes cringe-worthy, sometimes hilarious – most often, both. Cliton, who has the hots for a servant Isabelle, exclaims:
“Sweet Isabelle, who really truly is a belle!
I’d find more rhymes if only she were visabelle.
Is it not risibelle how most invisabelle
The indivisibelle Isabelle…is?
And oh how miserabelle am I….”
Ives (best known now for his play Venus in Fur, and as the playwright working with Stephen Sondheim on his latest musical, tentatively entitled Bunuel), was commissioned by Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2010 to create this version of Corneille’s Le Menteur, which Ives calls a “translaptation” – a translation, yes, but also an adaptation. Ives tweaks Corneille’s convoluted comic plot, which focuses on lies, love and confusion, both deliberate and accidental. The story is something of a love…quadrangle. Dorante is drawn to Clarice, whom he mistakes for her best friend Lucrece, and tries to lie his way into her heart through tales of derring-do. But Dorante’s good friend Alcippe already has dibs on Clarice. Meanwhile, Clarice and Lucrece have twin servants, Isabelle and Sabine, one a sexpot the other a Puritan, both portrayed by the actress Kelly Hutchinson.
If the duels and deceptions, misunderstandings and mayhem of The Liar are sometimes almost as impenetrable as they are implausible, Cliton, who serves somewhat as our narrator, offers some advice from the start:
“Deep breath now, everyone, release all strain,
And with those gadgets, please – turn off your brain.”
Director Michael Kahn has assembled a competent eight-member cast, several of whom performed in the original production of Ives version that Kahn staged in D.C., and puts them through a fast farcical pace, with well-placed slapstick and comic bits. He makes the most of CSC’s small Off-Broadway stage (and Off-Broadway budget), with the designers offering a suggestion of (rather than an investment in) 17th century opulence.
The title of The Liar is not exactly misleading. Dorante does indeed make up tall tales all the time to everybody to get his way, or simply because that is his way. It’s true he is not the only one. The women use their wiles on the men, Sabine says,
“to leash and tame them, using all our arts!
Then love them – love them! Using all our hearts.”
But my favorite character in The Liar is Cliton. This is in part because he enters into something of a conspiratorial pact with the audience in a way that none of the other characters do, and because the actor portraying him, Carson Elrod, speaks the clearest. He is also priceless in one of my favorite scenes – when Dorante the compulsive liar tries to teach Cliton the helpless truth-teller how to lie. I think the main reason I appreciate Cliton and Elrod the most is that it’s so refreshing these days to meet somebody in public who not only cannot lie, but does not.
The Liar is on stage at the Classic Stage Company (36 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003) through February 26, 2017.
Tickets and details
The Liar by David Ives, adapted from the play Le Menteur by Pierre Corneille . Directed by Michael Kahn.Set design by Alexander Dodge, costume design by Murell Horton, lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger, original music by Adam Wernick, sound design by Matt Stine, Wig, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas.
Featuring Christian Conn (as Dorante), Aubrey Deeker (as Philiste), Carson Elrod (as Cliton) Kelly Hutchinson (as Isabelle/Sabine), Adam Lefevre (as Geronte), Ismenia Mendes (as Clarice), Amelia Pedlow (as Lucrece), Tony Roach (as Alcippe). Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.
The Liar 1. Tony Roach, Christian Conn, Carson Elrod. Photo by Richard Termine.jpg