An adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel by Susan Haedicke, Monica Neagoy, and Didier Rousselet

Directed by Monica Neagoy

and Didier Rousselet

At Le Neon Theater to

February 18

Emerging over a snowswept crag, a barefoot child inches toward the only structure on a desolate landscape. He is so roughly swaddled in icy rags—face obscured, hands clutching a mass of dirty white cloth that turns out to be an infant—that he might be taken for an abominable snowman. Traversing the short distance to the lonely structure’s door proves a glacial process, each step a separate agony. And once the door is reached, the child’s plea to be allowed inside is met, not with sympathy, but with cryptic, cruelly existentialist questions. To one of these queries—an impatient, “What time is it?”—the child pathetically coughs the only syllable his numbed brain can muster: “Cold.”

Sounds like Brecht, doesn’t it? Or maybe Beckett. But it’s actually the start of The Man Who Laughs, Le Neon’s ambitious adaptation of L’Homme Qui Rit, a sweeping, melodramatic poem-novel by that champion of French Romanticism, Victor Hugo. The novel’s politically pointed beauty-and-the-beast story may be too monumental to be effectively captured by a cast of eight in the company’s tiny Arlington storefront, but that hasn’t kept the show’s creators from taking a running leap at epic theater. They’ve landed somewhere about halfway between their goal and the sort of small-scale absurdism they explored last season in Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit).

The barefoot, frozen child is Gwynplaine, a deformed creature of such consuming ugliness (he’s played by Didier Rousselet in a mask that renders the lower half of his face skull-like) that none who sees him can ever recognize his nobility of spirit. The infant he carried, who was blinded by her ordeal and is consequently untroubled by her savior’s ghoulish visage, is Dea (Monica Neagoy). And the impoverished devotee of paradox who takes them in and exploits them in freak-show performances of his allegorical play, Chaos Vanquished, is Ursus (Richard Bauer).

Hugo’s political concerns are summarized in this interior play, which deals with humankind’s struggle against temptations of the flesh. Having conceived the novel as a morality tale about social responsibility, the author took pains to engineer Gwynplaine’s life so that it echoes Chaos’ lessons. No sooner has the unfortunate lad discovered that his love for Dea is reciprocated than he’s spirited away by skittering monklike figures who inform him that he is of noble birth. Alas, the comforts and exalted place at court they offer make Gwynplaine miserable. Having experienced real-life pain, he tries to lecture his gaudily attired fellow noblemen about how insulated they all are and how an awakening populace is bound to transform society (“I come out of the abyss; I am misery….I will rise up”). But laughed at and scorned for his trouble, he finally longs for the sanctuary of Dea’s love and returns to her.

All this no doubt sounds as melodramatic in synopsis as it plays, though it’s eruditely handled by adaptors Rousselet, Neagoy, and Susan Haedicke. Their script is composed entirely of excerpts from Hugo’s novel, and the program indicates their English translation is faithful to Hugo’s poetic language, which may explain the rhetorical overkill of some passages. Ursus, particularly, is given real mouthfuls every time he begins soliloquizing. It says something that his early, would-be comic rant on the nature of truth proves difficult for Bauer, whose skill at delivering dissertations by the likes of Shaw and Strindberg is pretty much unequaled. The performer fares better when his character gets to wax ironic, as in the comment he makes on the budding romance between his two charges: “How singular; with all the oil I pour on the fire, I cannot extinguish it.”

Neagoy and Rousselet, assaying the central roles, declaim their lines prettily enough, and manage to suggest depth of character that isn’t always there in the script. As co-directors and co-designers they were also responsible for finding the production’s clever-on-a-budget visual equivalents for poetic grand gestures. Gauzy curtains descend around a bed, wrapping its inhabitants in a warm haze. Icy blue lighting turns a strip of white cotton batting into a snowbank. And an electronic, vaguely dirgelike score lends the evening a feel that is at once classical and contemporary. I could have done without the stylized slo-mo gestures of minor characters, which serve more to slow the proceedings than to suggest grandness, but it’s easy to understand the impulse to expand this chamber piece, given its highfalutin origins.

Ultimately, though, the adaptation of Hugo’s novel falls victim to the same problem that doomed Hugo’s own stabs at being a dramatist: His passion for rhetorical flourishes—appropriate in poetry, but grandiose when uttered onstage—overwhelms any emotion an audience might feel. And there’s not much an acting company, no matter how earnest, can do about it. The story remains persuasive, its execution less so. CP