Lecherous miser, saucy maid, wily servant, impecunious nephew, sweet young thing: Paxton Whitehead, Claire Karpen, Carson Elrod, Dave Quay, and Amelia Pedlow scheme, connive, and rhyme their way through The Heir Apparent, David Ives’ faithful in its own very funny fashion adaptation of an Eighteenth Century French farce, now enjoying an exuberant run at Classic Stage Company.
Who was it said, “The French are funny, sex is funny, comedy is funny, and yet no French sex comedies are funny”?
Probably somebody trying to be funny.
Also somebody who hadn’t yet seen Classic Stage Company’s current production of The Heir Apparent. Which is French. Technically. Which is about sex. Some of the time. Which is a comedy. Definitely. Which is funny. Very.
The Heir Apparent is the brilliant 21st Century American playwright David Ives’ word-happy, rhyme-crazy, mind-bending, head-spinning, tongue-twisting, joke-quip-gag-and pun-juggling adaptation of Jean-Francois Regnard’s early 18th Century French farce Le Legataire Universal about the impecunious nephew---Is there any other kind?---of a lecherous old miser---What else would he be?---in love with the sweet young daughter---Naturalment!---of a domineering and avaricious widow---You were expecting kind-hearted and charitable?---who with the help of his wily servant---You saw that wily coming a kilometer away, didn’t you?---must trick his uncle into making him the sole beneficiary of his will so that the domineering widow will consent to his marrying her sweet, young daughter.
And then there’s a lawyer…
Directed by John Rondo, whom I imagine running rehearsals drawing X’s, arrows, and O’s on a whiteboard, The Heir Apparent scores laughs from every corner of the CSC’s thrust stage. There’s much breaking of the fourth wall. Jokes are pulled in from wherever they can be found even if Ives has to reach all the way from 1702 to 2014 to get them. The play references itself and critiques itself as it bounds merrily along. From time to time the characters seem to become vaguely aware they aren’t speaking French and start listening in bafflement at what’s coming out of their mouths. Other times they appear to be on the verge of realizing they’re characters in a play, which while mildly confusing them for a moment, doesn’t upset them. Au contraire. It gives them renewed energy and confidence to proceed full-tilt in their absurdities. And all of this is dealt out in rhymed couplets.
The physically nimble, verbally gymnastic cast is led by a rumbling, grumbling Paxton Whitehead as the miserly uncle, Geronte, and Carson Elrod as the increasingly carried away by his own wily genius wily servant Crispin.
Crispin, as afflicted by a meta-consciousness as any literary construct whose creator has endowed with the ability to read himself, appears to know that as a wily servant in a comedy his job is to cause and increase confusion as the best method for bringing about harmony, understanding, and general happily-ever-aftering. Reassured by the trope, he’s confident that any crazy idea that pops into his head must be a good idea even if it strikes him as crazy. He also knows that it’s in the Wily Servant job description that wily servants have to adopt and drop multiple disguises at a moment’s notice. Again, faith in the trope saves him by assuring him that any disguise he adopts will fool whomever it needs to fool, no matter how obvious and outrageous. In fact, the more obvious and outrageous the more effective the disguise.
With his beady eyes transfixed as if stunned by what he’s just gotten away with and half-amazed and half-terrified by what he’s about to try next, Elrod’s Crispin carries off his schemes and impostures with brio and panache if not aplomb.
Meanwhile, the target of Crispin’s scheming, Whitehead’s Geronte is not a monster of greed and selfishness. He’s more like a big baby with a baby’s idea of how world is meant to work---it’s all organized to take care of his needs---and a baby’s concept of mine. He’s not being mean about it when he fails to consider his nephew’s and servants’ needs and feelings. He’s just oblivious to the fact that they have needs and feelings that aren’t in complete agreement with his own.
Plus, he’s preoccupied.
Geronte has a tricky digestive tract that demands constant monitoring and regulation. Much of his conversation in the early going involves graphic descriptions of the current state of his personal plumbing.
You haven’t heard scatological humor until you’ve heard it rhymed.
But he’s not so preoccupied he doesn’t recognize he has other bodily functions. Geronte has a lecherous side. But when he decides, apparently on a whim of the moment, to complicate things for his nephew even further by declaring his intention to marry girl himself---today! at two!---it’s not a sure bet either way which he’s the more desirous of acquiring with the match, a frisky and nubile young wife or a combination nurse and laundress on call 24/7.
This is a comedy, comedy is transformative, and Geronte needs transforming. Whitehead takes Geronte through four revisions of himself, including, for one scene of Marx Brothers-worthy hilarity, a temporarily zombiefied version, in which he staggers back from a presumed death to interrupt Crispin in the middle of another imposture, that of Geronte himself, and the two enact an homage to Groucho and Harpo’s mirror scene in Duck Soup.
As parasitical nephews go, Dave Quay's Eraste is one of the most amiable, affable, and considerate ones going. He even manages some sincere affection for his uncle, repugnant and selfish as the old fool can be. Although he's straight-forward in admitting aspects of his life would improve greatly if the old man would just drop off the twig and Geronte makes it hard not to look forward impatiently to that event, he doesn't actually wish his uncle would die. Well, not all the time. He doesn't need Geronte's money right away. He just needs to be named in the will right now. Fortunately, he can rely on his trusty valet Crispin. Fortunately, as well, Eraste has wiles of his own. While Crispin switches madly from imposture to imposture, Eraste's job is to keep his uncle distracted, his (he hopes) future mother-in-law placated, and his beloved reassured that he loves her, is not about to see her married off to his repulsive uncle, and will get that will written and signed---his beloved is no fool and knows where her interests lie. Quay brings it off with wit, intelligence, charm, and only a hint of madness born of panic and desperation.
Amelia Pedlow plays Isabelle as a sweet young thing but a remarkably level-headed sweet young thing. Practical in matters of love, sex and money, clear-eyed about the way her marital interests depend on Eraste's financial scheming, and, a good helpmeet in the making, capable of jumping right in to connive right along with Crispin and Eraste and contribute a few mad ideas of her own.
Pragmatic and fiscally self-interested a couple as they are, Isabelle and Eraste have a vibrant romantic streak that comes out when one or the other of them remembers they're French. Then everything comes to a stop as, with the cooperation of the lighting and music, they leave the play for a moment and take their places for their close up in a New Wave film in which, locked in melodramatic embrace, they exchange passionate endearments...in French of course. Then it's quickly back to business.
Clare Karpen as Geronte’s maid and Crispin’s beloved, Lisette, and Suzanne Bertish as Madame Argante, Isabelle’s coolly cynical and calculating mother, keep the other characters and the play from spinning off into complete madness with their contrasting examples of practicality.
Lisette, who has Geronte under her control thanks to her buxom figure and skill with an enema bag, knows she’s at her most alluring when she’s being most practical. As someone whose job in life is cleaning up other people’s messes, she’s developed a knack for anticipating messes before they happen and if not always able to prevent them then to be right there to mop up, a knack that makes her the perfect partner for a wily but not always careful servant like Crispin.
P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Ickenham once shuddered at the memory of an aunt who with one withering glance through her lorgnette could knock the stuffing out of meddlesome policemen who forgot their place. Madame Argante doesn’t trifle about with lorgnettes. What she brings to bear is a beguilingly wolfish smile guaranteed to shrivel the heart of the boldest suitor of her daughter.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a lawyer?
David Pittu plays the dimunitive attorney called in to write Geronte’s will, Scruple, who unlike most stage lawyers actually has one, even two. Scruples, that is. He also has an extremely nervous disposition, a fragile vanity, an understanable sensitivity about his height, and a paranoid tendency to think that everything anyone says or does that he doesn’t immediately understand is intended to insult, humiliate, confuse, and cozen him. He happens to be right, in this case, but it’s nothing personal. It’s hilarious watching Pittu, who enters tightly wound, wind himself tighter and tighter as he struggles to maintain his dignity and his sanity as the apparent lunatics running this asylum work him into their mad schemes and counter-schemes.
But the real star of the show is the playwright. Ives’ dialog is written in a knowing, colloquial American English that somehow still sounds convincingly in period. It’s wackily allusive, craftily metaphorical, full of casually tossed off anachronisms, and, as I mentioned, all carefully metered and rhymed. In some cases the rhymes themselves are the joke. In others it’s their naturalness that amazes. In all cases, Ives’ comic genius is a cause for wonder and applause.
I’ve been to comedies before where I was afraid to laugh in case I missed the next joke. But I never saw one before this that made me want to stand up and cheer for a near-rhyme.
The Heir Apparent, by David Ives, adapted from the play by John-Francois Regnard. Directed by John Lando. Set design by John Lee Beatty, costumes by David C. Woolard, and lighting by Japhy Weideman. With Suzanne Bertish, Carson Elrod, Claire Karpen, Amelia Pedlow, David Pittu, Dave Quay, and Paxton Whitehead.
Photos by John Termine, courtesy of CSC.