Overbearing mother. Coddled son. Buffoonish father. Frustrated old maid. Middle-class hypocrisy. Star-crossed love affair. Harmless fun?
Not in Les Parents Terribles, Jean Cocteau’s savage class comedy of pre-WWII Paris, a family farce with such elaborately incestuous dynamics it might’ve left Freud scrambling to invent complexes. The play unfolds an uproarious string of mishaps centered on a shabbily bourgeois middle-aged couple and their childish efforts to prevent their only son from finding happiness with an angelic young bookbinder. Eventually the pathological undertow trumps the over-the-top antics; the laughs curdle as themes of social decay overshadow the personal squabbles. Cocteau’s concoction has always been a recipe for first-rate entertainment, and deep ennui.
The Phoenix Theater Ensemble’s new revival, flying under the same weak-tea title Indiscretions pioneered by the 1995 Tony Award–winning Broadway adaptation, is in no way a let down. Though it might be hard to compete with Jude Law in a bathtub (as that previous performance notoriously featured), Jonathan Silverstein’s production deserves some notoriety of its own for gleefully serving up all the cringe-inducing delights the material has to offer. Gayton Scott in the role of mother Yvonne is engagingly detestable, but believably vulnerable enough to offer needed twinges of sympathy. Dan Cordle, playing her neglected husband George, shares enough mannerisms with son Michael (William Connell) that the two performances reflect disturbingly on each other—what seems appealing if incredible innocence in the son becomes neurotic narcissism in the father. Melissa Miller is appropriately apple-cheeked as the lower-class love interest, Madeleine, while Jan Leslie Harding is jilted, icy genius as the vengeful aunt Leo.
One weakness of the performance is the needlessly affected Brahmin-like accents of les parents, which are no doubt intended to highlight the characters’ socioeconomic pretensions, but don’t really function like the oily Parisian twang one would like to imagine. Overall, though, it’s uncanny how much contemporary relevance the cast manages to transmit: You can almost imagine the antagonists as self-satisfied, independently wealthy boomers degenerating amid leftover hippie squalor. Cocteau is indeed “still among us,” as his epitaph attests.