Frank (Hamish Linklater) loathes social niceties. He?ll say ”please” and ”thank you,” but he won’t tell you that your hair looks nice if it doesn’t. He was, as his name plainly states, born to be frank — and to detest anyone who isn’t. Celimene (Mamie Gummer), on the other hand, will compliment you when she needs a favor. She’ll do a nasty impression of you behind your back and gossip about you when you’re not around. Frank avoids people. Celimene loves parties. He has one friend; she has six. He always wears black. She only dons white. He most likely suffers from depression and severe social anxiety disorder. She, almost certainly, is a real nasty bitch. And, of course, as in any narrative setting, Frank and Celimene are meant to be together in David Ives’ silly, sweet, and sexy The School for Lies at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company.
Based on Moliére’s The Misanthrope and set among mid-17th century Parisian society, Lies is not an adaptation or a period piece per se. Ives, already a proven translator (Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play) and adapter (Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?), keeps the French text’s rhyming couplet format and basic plot about a man who despises hypocrites and his pretty lover who is one. But Ives tweaks the plot and ditches the somber ending for something much more farcical (twins, cross-dressing, stolen letters, a death at sea, and thick-rimmed glasses are all involved, though not necessarily in that order). Anachronisms abound: It’s doubtful many Frenchmen said ”douche” or ”LOL” and used Cincinnati as a punchline in 1666. The set too is no slave to lush period accuracy — the off-white stage houses only a chair, a golden chandelier, and an ivory writing desk. The costumes, by Tony winner William Ivey Long, are inspired by both actual 17th-century French designs and 20th-century Hollywood interpretations like The Man in the Iron Mask. Aside from the black-and-white costumes of the leads, the rest of the cast is dressed in bright colors — one character is outfitted in head-to-toe Big Bird yellow, another in Cookie Monster blue. Without any velvet couches or silk draperies to absorb sound, you can hear every crinoline crackle and waistcoat whoosh as the actors yell, pout, kiss, and fondle their way around the empty stage (again, not necessarily in that order).
The effect is startling, but not always perfect: Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if Ives + Co. are laughing with Moliére or at him — as when the show’s introduction calls the playwright ”comedy’s top mensch” yet sums up the work some critics think to be his Hamlet as ”a dark arraignment of human life and love and hope, blah blah.” But because Lies is made up almost entirely of glaring opposites — Frank and Celimene, neutrals and colors, black and white, truth and lies, past and present — it’s almost easy to overlook (and forgive) the contradiction. Besides that, it’s also just fantastically funny. Leading man Linklater is a 6-foot-plus, curly-haired paradox — he’s at once a hunk and a nebbish, with the comic timing of a sitcom star (he’s most recognizable for his role as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ loafer brother on The New Adventures of Old Christine) and the ability to twist his tongue around couplets like the most seasoned Shakespearean actor. Gummer, all alabaster cool good looks and warm heaving bosom, has more difficulty speaking in rhyme, but is otherwise his perfect match in every witty tête-à-tête. Truth be told, they are reason enough to go to the theater. B+
(Tickets: Classicstage.org or 866-811-4111)