Whatever the century, the world never suffers from a shortage of hypocrisy to lampoon. Still, when expert adapter David Ives tackled Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy Le Menteur (The Liar) for a 2010 commission in Washington, D.C., no one could have anticipated the show’s New York City opening would coincide with the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” And yet here we are, with Ives’s brilliant “translaptation” running at Classic Stage Company against Kellyanne Conway’s frenzy over Bowling Green. Plus ça change, as they say.
Liar piles doubles and mistaken identities upon each other giddily. The gallant Dorante, a serial prevaricator, tries to win the love of the beautiful, brash maid Clarice — or is it her quieter, homelier gal pal Lucrece? Meanwhile, in Ives’s version, Dorante’s pathologically honest valet, Cliton, pines for Clarice’s saucy chambermaid, Isabelle, who herself has a dour, moralizing twin sister named Sabine. It’s a masterwork of baroque plotting, a little comic fugue in which the simplest of conceits leads to a host of convoluted entanglements.
The biggest surprise is that Corneille, one of French literature’s most revered tragedians, could be so funny. He plundered his Spanish source material to make Le Menteur more appealing and contemporary to his French audience, and Ives takes a similarly aggressive approach: In his hands, Corneille’s scenario skims forward on swift flashes of wit, erudition, and bawdiness, drawing laughter almost to the point of groaning. The rhymed couplets come raining down in torrents: Ives pairs “kiss” with “dentifrice” and “full spectrum” with “gaping rectum.” An expert dramatist in his own right and a delightful versifier, Ives is in top form.
A virtuoso script like this will flounder without a strong hand and strong performers, but this show handles it spectacularly. CSC’s vigorous production, directed by Michael Kahn, bounds forward with muscular, zany energy. Christian Conn lands his lothario Dorante somewhere between Tucker Max and a young Ethan Hawke in a limber, enticing performance. Also outstanding is Carson Elrod, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best comic stage actors of our time. Though he plays Cliton as a rustic bumbler, he does so effortlessly, gracefully — a clown with the precision of a ballet dancer. The handsome cavalier-era costume design, with plush textures and vibrant colors by designer Murell Horton, keeps the play in touch with its seventeenth-century roots, even as the rest of the script and production leaps into the present tense.
While Liar is mostly a lighthearted romp, the epilogue finds Dorante hinting that he knows his skill for lying might be useful in the service of politics — a lone wink toward our contemporary crisis of public mendacity. The Liar does not have revolutionary aims, but as a breath of fresh air in a fog of factlessness, there’s no better show in town.
By David Ives
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through February 26