Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763) wrote plays that are the essence of Frenchness: totally easy to understand and utterly impossible to translate. The paradox is underscored by the new production of The False Servant at CSC, where Marivaux’s rueful, subtle study of love’s arbitrary rewards and disappointments comes through, pellucid as a spring of sparkling water despite the eccentric obstacle course of Kathleen Tolan’s translation (made from a “literal translation” by Nelly Lewis and Pam Gould) that follows French usage doggedly, even where it makes for antiquated diction or bad grammar in English. (“Go, Monsieur, return to the women who explain themselves more precisely than me.”) Tolan then compounds this fracture by salting the text with streetwise words (“phony,” “crap,” “score” as a verb) that jar against the archaic phrases like cobblestones on a subway track.
Luckily, Brian Kulick’s production, though it traces the delicate line of Marivaux’s story with a heavy dark pencil, rarely gets in the way of his scampering, bittersweet narrative about a wealthy young girl who disguises herself as a roistering chevalier, in order to inspect the husband her guardian has selected for her, and finds herself the new love object of his current mistress. Call it Twelfth Night cubed. Against a sparse setting built from a wagonload of luggage, Mark Wendland’s rich, somber costumes bask in Kevin Adams’s flood of bright lighting. Martha Plimpton, in a Prince Valiant bob, makes a spirited hero-heroine, with Jesse Pennington suitably callous and dapper as the faithless lover whom she marries anyway. If Marivaux’s grace has been left behind on this journey, he still has plenty of passion and brains left with which to fill the performance’s speedy two hours.