The School for Lies
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
April 30, 2011
OMG, did I LOL—and hard—during Walter Bobbie’s sparkling production of David Ives’s brilliant The School for Lies, a 21st century reboot of Moliere’s Misanthrope.
What’s so significant about this piece, which stars the smashing team of Hamish Linklater and Mamie Gummer, is how well every significant gamble Ives took paid off. For starters, it isn’t entirely set in 2011. While the vernacular is clearly taken from the present, William Ivey Long’s sumptuous costumes and John Lee Beatty’s simple and elegant set take their bases from the designs of the 17th century. And while the cast speaks words that would no doubt make Moliere’s Alceste cringe, they’re saying them in rhyming couplets.
The only character who differs from the source material is the titular and equally misanthropic Frank (Linklater), determined to spend his days clad in black and being perfectly, well, frank, about everything he disagrees with. He meets his match in the gossipy widow Celimene (Gummer), about to stand trial for numerous incidents of slander. Frank sees so much of himself in her—and he’s instantly smitten. Of course, he’s about to stand trial as well, for insulting the poetry of one of Celimene’s suitors, Oronte (Rick Holmes), whom he has affectionately nicknamed “Boreonte.” (He has also given her suitor Clitander, played by Frank Harts, a nickname that’s a part of the female anatomy.)
Linklater and Gummer are masters at delivering Ives’s verbal volleys and tongue-twisters, infusing Frank and Celimene with the perfect amounts of bravado and self-dissatisfaction. Gummer practically glows in Long’s gown, and her physicality, mannerisms, and vocal technique left many in the audience remarking how uncanny her resemblance to her mother, Meryl Streep, is.
Yet they are not the only aces this production has up its sleeve. The entire cast is first-rate, from Alison Fraser’s spitfire Arsinoe and Hoon Lee’s cross-dressing Philante to Jenn Gambatese’s vivacious sexually-charged Eliante, who gets one of the play’s best couplets, “The choice is yours, you stud: die, or deflower. / I‘ll come back for your answer in an hour.” Celimene’s three suitors, Holmes, Harts, and Matthew Maher’s Acaste, are outrageously funny in performance and appearance, dressed in outfits of eye-popping color. Special distinction must be given to Steven Boyer as two different put-upon domestics, one of whom keeps getting his tray of canapés knocked out of his hands.
If done wrong, this whole experiment could have failed miserably. But Bobbie and Ives have created a fascinating commentary on how the social graces of the past and present may have more similarities than many would think. Not only that. These masters have created the funniest, most entertaining production in town, with multiple laughs per minute.
You’d certainly have to be a misanthrope to feel otherwise.