Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The School for Lies

Mamie Gummer and Jenn Gambatese.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

I have to begin this review with a caveat: At the performance of The School for Lies I attended, an electrical outage down the block caused a loss of some of the lighting and set off a warning alarm on the (sound?) equipment, which happened to be quite close to me. During the last five or ten minutes of the first act, a series of four high-pitched beeps repeated at changing intervals, over and over, right in my ear. It severely messed with my concentration (although the actors, impressively, didn't bat an eye). This may well be why I had a less ecstatic response to this show than many other critics did. I did, however, like much of it, and I did laugh a lot.

The School for Lies is David Ives' riff on Molière's classic comedy, The Misanthrope. It combines poetry and period dress with contemporary language and sometimes attitudes. The plot focuses on the romantic quadrangle of Celimene, who either loves Frank or wants to use him; Elainte, whose hots for Frank cause her to, uh, lose all sense of decorum; Philante, who loves Elainte; and of course Frank himself, the outspoken, frank (duh) misanthrope whose churlishness is subdued by the possibility that Celimene loves him. Add to the mix Celimene's three other suitors (ridiculous men all), Celimene's frenemy Arisinoé, Frank's odoriferous cohort Basque, and Celimene's much put-upon servant Dubois, and you have the confusion, egos, slapstick, and silliness that make up a good farce.

I enjoyed the high wit more than the low humor, and I found the major running joke annoying (many reviewers found it hysterical). I also thought the show was ten, perhaps fifteen minutes too long. Of course, a show like this lives or dies on the strengths of its performers. Hamish Linklater, as Frank, is flawless, whether serious or silly, scowling or lovelorn--and his diction is clear as a bell.

Mamie Gummer's performance is less compelling. For one thing, she needs to project better. It isn't that she can't be heard so much as her voice lacks a certain presence. Also, although this is not her fault, Gummer's resemblance to her mother Meryl Streep at her age can be distracting--and it is during Gummer's best moments that the resemblance is strongest. I don't like judging people by their relatives, and I thought Gummer was excellent in TV's "The Good Wife," where she was her own person. But here I occasionally felt as though I had slipped back to the 1970s and was watching Streep perform.

Of the rest of the cast, Hoon Lee as Philante is a particular stand-out. Walter Bobbie's direction largely keeps the festivities moving right along, with the occasional drag. The costumes by William Ivey Long are wonderful.

(Press ticket, fifth row center.)

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