If there’s anything half as entertaining as The Liar onstage hereabouts, I’d be obliged if someone would let me know about it.
There, now, that was fun: I haven’t written a shameless quote-me line since I can’t remember when, but the daffy pleasures David Ives has extracted from Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century boulevard comedy—a tight little romp, now that Ives has had his way with it, about a high-spirited provincial with an eye for the ladies and an instinct for invention—have left me feeling uncharacteristically giddy. In fact after spending an evening with the irrepressible fabulist Dorante, I’ve half a mind to invent a new persona and try it out at the local coffee shop. So if you meet a talkative gentleman with a colorful past and a surprisingly charming habit of describing it in rhymed couplets, fair warning: That might be me, operating happily under the influence.
After a brief cell-phones-off introduction, delivered with relish (and yes, in verse) by an agreeably surly varlet (Adam Green) who’ll shortly hire himself out as the protagonist’s valet, our hero (Christian Conn) arrives amid the stately avenues of Paris (impishly realized, down to the pop-out hedges and poodle topiaries, by Alexander Dodge), where he proceeds to introduce himself to the locals as a war hero recently returned from the front. All tosh, of course: Like his creator Corneille, Dorante is a country lawyer come to the capital and looking for a bit of fun, and he’s perfectly willing to be whoever the next pretty young thing wants him to be, if that’s what it takes to earn him a few minutes of moonlit flirtation.
And oh, the stories he tells. Meeting his old friend Alcippe (Tony Roach), who suspects his beloved of a riverside evening rendezvous, Dorante boasts of an elaborate shipboard seduction that would make Cleopatra weep with envy. (The lie itself is in the original; the droll Shakespeare quote, like the many that will follow, is Ives’ innovation.) Soon after, when his father (David Sabin) announces an arranged match that threatens to derail his own romantic agenda, Dorante invents a previous entanglement to shut down the old man’s plans. A mistaken-identities situation involving the winsome Clarice (Erin Partin) and her seemingly censorious friend Lucrece (Miriam Silverman) follows, as do many more confabulations, each more floridly ornamented than the last. Which means that when things finally do come to a head, there are far more details to remember than even a dedicated fibber like Dorante—a man whose blithe motto is that “the unimagined life’s not worth living”—can manage.
Ives, best known for the inventive playlets of the 1990s omnibus All in the Timing, is one of our more agile wordsmiths, and he’s been having stoopid fun plundering his rhyming dictionary. (The volume came recommended, he says, by no less an authority than Stephen Sondheim.) He wedges more synonyms for “flatter” into a single sentence than you’d wager was possible, and what he’s done with a bit about a bivalve is just…well, it’s downright vaudevillian, but somehow it works. If Ives is a touch too taken with knowing jokes about the legal profession and things theatrical, at least one of each lands plenty big—just trim the excess, sir: You’re stepping on your own heels with the follow-up. He’s invented a sham duel, pursued quite seriously, that’s quite possibly the funniest stage combat ever choreographed, and he has, moreover, given the starchier half of a pair of identical-twin maids (played pertly and then primly by Colleen Delaney) a provocatively stern bit of business with a pillow.
The verse trips fleetly, the physical business has a satisfying snap, and Michael Kahn has drilled his uniformly confident cast until it’s an elegant machine—the ensemble work in a pivotal wooing-through-a-fence scene is a joyful thing all on its own. But what makes the whole thing work, more than any single element, is the sense that everyone, cast and author and adapter and audience and all, is in on a hugely enjoyable joke about love and language and lies and laughter. The Liar has a spring in its step, a sparkle in its eye, and one brow permanently arched—and the God’s honest truth is that it’s a palpable hit.