There aren’t many American playwrights who can own “funny” for its own sake the way David Ives can at the top of his game. And yet, The Liar, his rhyming verse adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Le Menteur, currently at CSC, though amiable, seems mostly without real champagne fizz.
The plot, set in 1644, more or less (the year the French original debuted) need not be summarized here—suffice to say it’s a confection about a guy (played by the appropriately named Christian Conn) who gets into deeper and deeper trouble because his boastful nature compels him to lie at every turn (sound familiar?), romantic and legal complications about, but somehow it all untangles happily. But what’s important here is why the play rarely sparks.
Basically, I think, it’s because Mr. Ives is trapped by the rhyming verse (which was no doubt employed in the French original as well). While it certainly helps tone and to deliver a certain period classicism, the offsets are more conspicuous. For one thing, Mr. Ives is not an experienced or trained lyricist, so he occasionally falls prey to sentence-structure convolutions that draw attention to themselves as less-than-fluid colloquialism. On the other hand, Mr. Ives is also a lover of musical theatre, having worked as librettist (he’s writing the book for the next Sondheim show) and as libretto adapter (many Encores! concerts), so it’s not as if he has a tin ear for verse either. But he’s hampered by yet something else:
Rhymed couplets in pentameter rhythm lock you into one basic manifestation of rhyme, which is light verse with a relentless regularity. Well, let me amend that; you can circumvent that effect if you choose to let the rhymes exist as a kind of unifying structural conceit that can easily be hidden internally; if you’re not bending sentences so that rhyme is a landing point for clause and sentence endings. But Mr. Ives is making a point of the rhymes—his servant-clown-narrator Cliton (Carson Elrod) specifically makes that clear at the top of the show. The announcement may be tacitly giving us permission not to be distracted by them (a permission which, happily, works), but it also puts more burden on the technique; because it’s almost impossible to keep it from flattening the distinction between different characters in dialogue. Individualistic locution is compromised because the rhyme scheme can’t vary to support it; every character is slave to the couplet.
I don’t mean to say Mr. Ives’ version of The Liar is anybody’s disaster. The cast—also including Ismenia Mendes, Amelia Pedlow, Kelly Hutchinson, Toy Roach, Aubrey Deeker and Adam LeFevre—are a feelgood bunch to spend time with, and again, the experience is a confection that goes down easily enough. And one most note that the play’s current run at the CSC is not its debut (nor is this the first time Michael Kahn has directed it). It premiered in 2010 and has been making the rounds of regionals since. Clearly it has its proponents.
It just doesn’t showcase David Ives being as good as…David Ives…
Off Broadway’s Mint Theatre, which tends to specialize in a certain kind of rare, genteel play, usually rarely produced or forgotten, is currently represented by an unusual world premiere of the same stripe, Yours Unfaithfully, a play by British actor-dramatist Miles Malleson, published in 1933 but never before produced. At its center is a couple, not quite middle aged but a far ways from newlyweds, who have an open marriage. Writer Stephen (Max von Essen) is in a non-productive funk, but his attraction to mutual friend (Mikaela Izquierdo) seems poised to refresh his energies in many ways, and so wife Anne (Elisabeth Gray) encourages him to follow his, well, let’s say his muse. The affair does indeed revitalize him, even though Anne quietly begins to realize that her emotional response is not in keeping with what she thinks should be her philosophical sophistication. Add to the mix doctor Alan (Todd Cerveris), another mutual friend, now a neutral advisor and sympathetic shoulder—but at one time Anne’s dalliance—and Stephen’s father (Stephen Schnetzer), a pastor with traditional values…and a curious hybrid it is; a play of marital infidelity explored somewhat less through the prism of roiling passion and somewhat more through the principles and ramifications of a social contract, its delivery somewhere between light drawing room comedy (with melancholy undertones) and Shavian dialectic. Very much a style, if not a play, of its time.
But under the direction of Jonathan Bank, it’s presented with a clean, clear understanding of that style’s tone and rhythm, subdued on the surface but underneath alive with growing tensions. The cast, all of them, are quite fine in putting over nuances of bygone-world mores-by-way-of-behavior with time-capsule-like authenticity.
Whether you like the play or not will depend on your tolerance for such hot subject matter to be treated with such cool deconstruction (purportedly the play is somewhat based on an open marriage of the playwright’s own)—but you are likely to find it always interesting. And for a period piece that has languished unproduced for about 84 years, it holds stage in 2017 remarkably well.