Reality’s a drag. And drag, these days, is a significant reality. Maybe that’s what prompted David Ives to write The School for Lies (Classic Stage Company), surely the silliest play ever, in both the best and the worst senses of that word. An adaptation of Molière’s masterpiece, The Misanthrope, Ives’s script trashes its source mercilessly—but does so in the belief that this may be the best way of conveying Molière’s original message to a civilization already trashy beyond anything the French genius could have imagined. How misguided you find Ives’s belief may depend on how much you really love Molière.
The civilization in which Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a/k/a Molière, wrote and acted in his plays was itself a formidably trashy one. Aristocratic privilege and royal prerogative made a joke of justice. Medicine was a patchwork of folk remedies, wild guesses, and sheer fraud, with only minimal science mixed in. Commerce and manufacturing, heavily taxed but otherwise largely unregulated, were drenched in bribery and corruption. Journalism, a new occupation consisting largely of unsigned or pseudonymous pamphlets, traded heavily in rumor and scurrility. Religion, an official arm of the state, was so utterly crooked that it viewed acts of genuine devoutness with suspicion.
Theater drew large audiences, but then, as now, their taste was largely coarse and superficial: The mob preferred cheap gags and cheaper sentiments; the elite hunted for in-jokes and scandalous allusions. Court taste, which everybody followed to some degree, was most often motivated by whim. Molière spent a lot of his time carpentering up scenarios full of vapid excuses for music and dance, with song lyrics to match. That some of them survive as viable plays shows you exactly how gifted, and how strategically cunning, he was.
The Misanthrope (1666) puts a slice from the top layer of Molière’s slime-ridden society under the moral microscope for scrutiny. Except for its hero, Alceste, nobody is honest. The nicest of the other characters are a reasonable couple who, with effort, confine their own dishonesty to white lies for the purpose of avoiding social embarrassment. Alceste finds even their position too compromised. Unluckily for him, he’s smitten with the beautiful, wealthy young widow, Celimene, a kind of anti-Alceste, who shares his dark view of her friends’ phoniness, but retails it, as cynical comedy, behind their backs. In a society where you need your friends’ pull to make your fortune or keep you out of jail, no good can come of this, and in Molière’s play, no good does: When Celimene is unmasked, her other suitors desert her; the hermit’s life that Alceste offers her, she rejects, driving him off to live it himself.
While retaining loosely—very loosely—Molière’s basic outline, Ives takes pains to dodge the original’s bitter, complex undercurrents. Instead, he turns its surface into an all-stops-out extravaganza of verbal slapstick, seconded in Walter Bobbie’s production by periodic lurches into physical buffoonery. Society’s nothing but a school for lies? Then it must be time to par-tay! This time around, Celimene (Mamie Gummer) mourns her husband, Alceste, lost at sea. Enter Frank (Hamish Linklater), hauled reluctantly into her house by the reasonable Philinte (Hoon Lee). Frank’s riffs on social fakery, like his diction, owe as much to contemporary standup comics as to Molière’s sober-toned, graceful versifying.
Louis Quatorze is still King. Bright-colored frock coats and bouffant gowns (by William Ivey Long) billow across the floor, ignoring its litter of prop canapés, from Alceste’s repeated collisions with a tray-bearing servant, that nobody bothers to clean up. When Ives needs a plot push, he falls back on Molière; when he feels something more rompish is required, he throws in cunnilingus, nose-picking, rock-and-roll, or just about anything else Molière left unmentioned.
Much of the evening is fun, sometimes enormous fun, but as a whole it makes zero sense, and a full 135 minutes of Laugh-In in lace jabots might not be everyone’s optimal entertainment choice. Bobbie’s principal instruction to the cast seems to have been “clown till you drop,” in spite of which Linklater, Lee, Alison Fraser (Arsinoe), Rick Holmes (Oronte), and Matthew Maher (Acaste) sneak some genuine humor into the haphazard excess. Would Molière laugh? Probably. And then, I suspect, he’d set about giving notes.