A government in fiscal crisis. An embarrassment of riches accumulated by the top percent of the population to the consternation of others. A naïve female pop figure continually slut-shamed into submission by angry mobs. Sounds pretty familiar, does it not? Marie Antoinette, playwright David Adjmi's modern-flair retelling of the famously reviled, beheaded teen queen, seems to land smack-dab in 2013's ticker of news events, and we’re all the better for it.
Marie Antoinette, playing through Nov. 24 at Off Broadway's Soho Rep in a stylish, minimalist production (after two New England go-rounds that reportedly skewed more to the excesses of its title character), uses little more than costumes, chairs, and macaroons to suggest the French Revolution. The breezy tone is set right away as a tardy Marie (Marin Ireland) apologizes to not only her society pals, but directly to the audiences for her lateness. Adjmi’s play then sketches the biographical basics with much the same insouciance as Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film: a loveless, sexually dysfunctional marriage to the diminutive King Louis XVI (Steven Rattazzi), a dalliance with a handsome Count (Chris Stack), and chirpy girl talk with high-born courtiers (Jennifer Ikeda, Marsha Stephanie Blake). Plus, there’s a sheep, deliciously played by David Greenspan, whose attachment to her ladyship leads to surprising results.
The first act highlights the Queen of France’s day-to-day musings imagine Parker Posey in her Party Girl days and relies on easy quips (you need only wait five minutes for the legendary ''let them eat cake” line). And much of this is very funny, with the banter between Ireland and Rattazzi especially delightful. (“Ugh, you’re so quotidian," she sighs at one point.) But Adjmi, working with ace director Rebecca Taichman, is after bigger game than this. Eventually, Marie Antoinette becomes a sobering look at how our leaders fail us, and how they internalize their own political misgivings. (You might catch a whiff of Sarah Palin’s rise and fall in the proceedings.) By the time our title queen reaches her bitter end, you may be surprised by how quietly moving the journey has become.
Much of the play’s success rests on its ferocious leading lady’s petite shoulders: Ireland, a reliable and undervalued performer in heightened dramas (reasons to be pretty, Showtime’s Homeland), for once gets to tear into a comedy, and scores. The plays's delicate shifts in tone would be downright jarring without her expertly judged balancing act. The same goes for Rattazzi, who begins as a comic foil but slowly becomes the production's unlikely conscience. (Actually, this is a terrific company of performers, though many are underutilized.) This vivid reimaging of ''Madame Deficit'' falls squarely in the black. B+