The False Servant
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 9, 2005
What a joy to see Marivaux’s classic 18th century caper, The False Servant, if only to see the excellent Martha Plimpton give a superb example of what real acting is all about. Five minutes into the production, she strides before the audience bringing the energy, verve, and wit that carries the play.
Briefly, the story is about deceit, greed, and love. A wealthy Parisian woman is to marry a man, Lelio, whom she has never met. She goes to a party, disguised as a man named Chevalier, expressly to check him out. To her surprise, he is with another woman, the Countess. Her curiosity piqued, she continues her disguise, hires a valet, and sets out for the Countess’s town to discover more about them. The Countess, it turns out, is also wealthy, but only half as wealthy as she is. And he, as expected in commedia dell’arte, has nothing. In fact, he is indebted to the Countess, a debt which will be forgiven if he marries her or if she breaks off the marriage agreement. Chevalier befriends Lelio, and together they plot for Chevalier to win the heart of the Countess so that Lelio is free to pursue the wealthier woman, who is actually Chevalier. Chevalier, with the unintended help of various valets, complicates the scheme and brings out the true colors of the man she is suppose to marry.
Translated by Kathleen Tolan, this production delivers contemporary language that makes the play an easy crowd pleaser. Most important, the actors appear comfortable with the dialogue. Plimpton, as Chevalier, absolutely lights up the stage. She does this by showing economy. Every hand gesture, footstep, facial expression is precise, intended, assured. Without a word, we know who Plimpton’s character is. She knows who he is, too, and she demonstrates complete comfort being in his skin. Further, she inhabits this character so thoroughly that she doesn’t have to think twice, not even when she pulls her sword and mistakenly breaks the chain on a watch fob. Even then, she reacts as only her character would: with a pause, a twinkle, and a connection with the audience.
Brian Kulick directs, and he manages to keep this two-hour production going at a steady pace. He draws some notable moments from his actors, and one in particular belongs to Tina Benko and Plimpton. Benko brings a courtly, serious tenor to the Countess, which is especially effective bouncing off the whimsy of Plimpton’s Chevalier. In the final love scene, Benko’s character melts and convincingly submits to Chevalier. The audience is privileged to witness a rare moment, sincere tenderness—real enough to cause a slight tightening in this viewer’s chest.
The other players support Plimpton, but never quite reach her height. Jesse Pennington as Lelio, the rogue, becomes more convincing in Act II, where his character begins to unravel and where the smooth swagger expected of him in the beginning isn’t required. Bill Buell as Trivelin, the small-time scheming valet, fills the small stage with a bold presence. It is almost as if he needs additional room to contain his character. With a little more consistency, the character will come into focus as the low-life we know him to be. Jerry Matz and Paul Lazar round out the cast as Frontin and Arlequin, both valets.
Credit for set and costumes goes to Mark Wendland. The play opens with trunks and luggage of all sizes heaped on an enormous carriage that occupies the whole stage. It is a simple yet impressive set, and is used in multiple ways. Characters move a trunk here or there for quick and seamless scene changes. They kick trunks around to let off steam. The luggage contains food and wine for the spontaneous picnic. However, the play takes place predominantly in one town and ultimately the luggage serves more for props than as a set.
The costumes work well, particularly those for Chevalier and the Countess. Both have the look and fit that only wealth can buy. Full coats add drama to the conniving valets, swirling with the motion of the characters. The coats become distracting only when the bottles of wine are out and open and threaten to be upended either by the movement of coat or the thrust of a protruding sword. Kevin Adams designed lighting and Mark Huang designed sound.
All in all, Marivaux’s plot is familiar, but the play is still very funny. It is rarely tiresome to see arrogant cads get their come-uppance. In this production, it is a privilege to watch Plimpton display her craft with a skill rarely seen in the theatre today. That alone is worth the price of a ticket.