The School for Lies

David Ives’s The School for Lies is a freight train of funny rolling through the Classic Stage Company. Some laughs come thundering through at higher speeds than others, yet in this adaptation of Moliere’s classic The Misanthrope, regardless of the speed, the company always finds the funny, making for a wonderfully fun night of theatre.

In The School for Lies, playwright Ives has taken a few liberties with the exact plot of The Misanthrope, but it is, no offense to Moliere, for the better. In production notes, Ives says that while he likes The Misanthrope, he has always felt it started in the middle, and Ives was more interested in how The Misanthrope’s central lovers, Alceste and Celimene, came together, being, as they are, such opposites. So Ives changes a few things around, killing off Alceste and introducing Frank (Hamish Linklater), who is just that, and devises a way for Frank and Celimene (Mamie Gummer) to fall in love, thanks to a little trickery from Philante (Hoon Lee). (There’s also a servant, Basque (Steven Boyer), who speaks very little but steals a number laughs courtesy of a running gag involving canapés. It sounds schtiky but trust me, dear readers, in Boyer’s able hands it’s very funny.)

The plot here, complete with Celimene’s several suitors and other unrequited love, plus the town gossip, Arsinoe (Alison Fraser), is fairly felicitous to The Misanthrope, but in my opinion that’s less important than the subject matter: the power of our words, and the hypocrisy with which we use them. You see, in the world of The School for Lies, people can sue one another for slander. While that may seem commonplace, the thing here is that “slander” is used loosely to encompass pretty much anything disparaging, as trifling as it may be.

So, for example, when Frank is frank in his reaction to a poem written and read aloud by Orante (Rick Holmes), the “sonneteer” takes Frank to court so that he may account for the disgrace. Moreover, so as to remain pleasant to everyone and also to avoid litigation, Celimene, Philante and others, except Frank, rag on each other behind closed doors and yet embrace those same subjects of ridicule and over praise them when encountering them in person. Frank abhors such hypocrisy and says as much, which makes him the odd man out, and which, furthermore, makes his love for Celimene - one of the worst offenders - all the more surprising - and funny.

I’m fascinated by the struggle between being nice so as not to offend and being outrightly frank. This was an idea explored in The Invention of Lying, the Ricky Gervais movie in which he made his case for the usefulness vs. uselessness of religion. In that movie, Gervais did what I can’t stand: He mistook truth for rudeness. Have you ever had someone come up to you and, unprovoked, say your hair looked bad? When you react with offense, the person tries to justify the comment by saying, “I’m just being honest.” When did honesty become an excuse for rudeness? If I had asked you what you thought of my hair and you responded that it looked awful, that would be being honest. But to offer that unsolicited opinion and call it honest is a falsehood.

Thankfully, that’s not the kind of “honesty” employed in The School for Lies. Frank doesn’t go out of his way to be rude to people (in fact, he tries to avoid having his opinion solicited); he simply doesn’t sugarcoat anything. If someone asks his opinion, as did the sonneteer, he will give it, no matter how offensive it may be. Because Frank behaves in this manner, and thinks himself virtuous because of it, he is offended when others do not follow suit. By the plays conclusion, as in The Misanthrope, everyone cedes a little and finds a happy medium between being brutally honest and shifting perspective a little to come to see flaws as quirky features.

But what really makes this play work is the production value, from the costumes and sets to Walter Bobbie’s direction to the pitch-perfect cast.

Designed by John Lee Beatty, the set of The School for Lies is expansive but not ostentatious. Everything takes place in one room of Celimene’s home, a great room, made up of quilted padding in a soft ecru. (The set is white(ish) and pure, leaving its inhabitants to muck it up.) With just a bureau, a chair and some stools that come in and out, Beatty’s set leaves plenty of room for the actors to play.

And play they do in William Ivey Long’s magnificent costumes. They looked period enough (based on the little I remember from my college costume history class). The men, except for Basque and Frank, are ornately dressed from head to toe in vivid color, making them pop off of the blank canvas of a set. The women are in corsets and full skirts, but they seem comfortable in them and move freely. My friend who joined me noted that he liked that the look of the costumes - the silhouettes - were period but the fabric seemed very lightweight and modern. (This was an interesting note because we agreed that the play, in total, was a delicious mix of classic themes & style and modern wit and sensibilities.)

The play was expertly paced, steaming through fantastic bits of comedy with a terrific frenetic energy, but taking the time to slowly chug along when called for. (The pace slowed a bit mostly during the exchanges between Celimene and Arsinoe. Theirs is a funny exchange in which they lob character assaults at one another under the guise of recounting hearsay. At one point, when Celimene seems offended by what Arsinoe has to say, Arsinoe counters that she doesn’t gossip, she just reports. Brilliant!) Bobbie has engaged a game cast and, it seems, given them license play with the play, to imbue it a modern, unstuffy air that delights throughout.

That game cast has not a weak member among them. (In addition to the aforementioned actors, Jenn Gambatese, Matthew Maher and Frank Harts also star.) Leading the cast to great effect are Mamie Gummer and Hamish Linklater, who dazzle with both their sincerity and perfect comedic timing.

I was particularly tickled by a scene in which Gummer does impressions of (unseen) townspeople. Similar to a scene in The Misanthrope, though much funnier, Celimene is asked by her suitors and other to list the faults of their “friends.” Rather than just rattling off a list, in The School for Lies Celimene takes on the different characters. It’s riotous to watch Gummer take on a thug’s affect, gesturing like a baller on the street and speaking like some hoodlum from the Bronx, throwing out “yo”s and “dude”s all over the place. And yet while Gummer brings the funny, she also has very good, grounded moments, especially toward the end of the play when Celimene’s feelings are genuinely hurt. Gummer allows the hurt to come through but remains strong and comes through the other side just fine.

And as the crusader Frank, Linklater thrills. His tall, lanky body throws itself all over the stage, stalking about and flailing his arms around in exasperation. (These flailing arms often contribute to Basque’s Sisyphean but funny effort to unload those canapés.) Frank flits from emotion to emotion, in a self-righteous tizzy one moment and then a love-crazed frenzy the next, and Linklater doesn’t miss a beat. Though The School for Lies is written in rhymed couplets (as was Moliere’s style), Linklater and the rest of the cast never trip over the language, showing an understanding for the verse while being faithful to the modernity of the humor.

And speaking of those rhymed couplets, within the first few minutes of the play, during which Philante, breaking the fourth wall, addresses the audience and makes the case for adapting The Misanthrope in the first place, Ives has Philante rhyming “mensch” with French. Oh, The School for Lies, you had me at mensch!

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