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David Ives has written all kinds of plays since the late 1970s, but the ones he’s done with outgoing Shakespeare Theatre Company honcho Michael Kahn over the last decade have all been centuries-old French comedies translated into rhyming English verse. For their fifth and final pairing before Kahn retires at the end of the current season, Ives—whose sexy two-hander Venus in Fur was the most-performed play in the country a couple of years after its stellar Studio Theatre production in 2011—has chosen to refresh a satirical trio by the German social critic Carl Sternheim that follows the Maske family over three generations.
Ives has streamlined their name to “Mask” and made them voracious Americans, his choice of synonyms for “rewrite” indicating a loosening fidelity as he goes: “The Panties” is “adapted” from Die Hose; “The Partner” is “freely adapted” from Der Snob; and “The Profit” is merely “suggested” by Sternheim’s 1913. Perhaps Ives was hoping to shield his inspiration from criticism in the latter case, because the triptych’s finale, “The Profit,” wherein two sisters who share control of a $2 trillion empire await the end of the world, is the longest and most ambitious piece of the whole. And despite the fact it’s the one Ives has tinkered with the most since STC hosted a free workshop of these plays last year, it’s still the only time one begins to feel fidgety. (The trio runs just under two hours all in, and is performed sans intermission.)
“The Panties” takes place in Boston on Independence Day 1950. Its slamming doors and midcentury New Yawk accents seem calculated to evoke hazy memories of the oft-rerun 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners. Louise Mask (Kimberly Gilbert) is at home trying to live down the humiliation of having had her undies fall down while attending a parade that morning; the scandal has sent several potential boarders—a descendent of Paul Revere and a rabbi—and one repressed neighbor to her door. Her husband, Joseph (Carson Elrod), is as embarrassed by this episode as Louise, though he seems blind to his wife’s sexual frustration. “We practice what you might call Catholic contraception,” Louise confesses to her neighbor, Trudy (Julia Coffey).
“The Partner” is set in 1987. Christian Mask (Kevin Isola), the son of Louise and Joseph, is a trader on Wall Street, trying to conceal his humble background—and the corpse of the mistress he’s just shot in the chest with Alexander Hamilton’s dueling pistol, a birthday present from that same mistress—long enough to secure a partnership. While he’s running around trying to keep his deception from unraveling, a descendant of Hamilton (Tony Roach, who plays the descendant of Paul Revere in the previous play) delivers the homily: “The future of money is always money.”
“The Profit,” finally, finds the vapid Louise Mask (Gilbert again, playing the granddaughter of her character from the first segment) enjoying a life of amoral privilege in near-future Malibu. She receives several unexpected visitors on a morning when Southern California has already begun its slide into the Pacific and a gigantic sea snake, its arrival foretold in recurring jokes throughout the evening, is making its way down the coast from Ventura County.
As in Ford’s’ strong production of Born Yesterday earlier this fall, Gilbert is working in a more mannered vein of performance than she has in her more naturalistic work at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where she’s a longtime company member. It’s a little jarring initially, only because she’s much more familiar to D.C. audiences than the other five actors, none of whom are based here, though Elrod and Coffey have appeared in previous STC productions. Much of the fun comes from watching these players adopt different hairstyles and wardrobes to play much younger or older versions or relatives of the same people over a 75-year span, in the same way that certain jokes echo down through the decades throughout the evening. Ives is better at farce than he is at satire, but maybe that’s the Sternheim showing.
To Jan. 6 at 450 7th St. NW. $44–$118. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.