Talent is a funny thing, maturing according to the muse’s timetable and not that of the artist. Some, like, say, Orson Welles, reach extraordinary heights with their earliest efforts, only to see so many of their subsequent projects fall short – due to overambition? an uncompromising ego? or the sheer smallness of the ordinary mortals with whom they find themselves surrounded? Others, achieving incandescence in their earliest efforts, are then crippled not by their own egos but by others’ praise; the lucky among these, like, say, Eugene O’Neill, struggle through to a second period of late greatness. And there are those extraordinary few, the Shakespeares, the Picassos and Matisses, who go from strength to strength, reinventing themselves over and over but never ceasing to be themselves, and to do great work.
But I am most heartened (probably because I hope to be among them) by the stories of those artists who, manifesting at least some talent early on, don’t break through to true greatness until fully mature. They do work worth remembering, worth cherishing; but when they are older, and you see what had been gestating all this time, well, these early efforts start to seem more like an apprenticeship.
David Ives is one of these latter. I am enormously fond of his collection of one-act plays, All In The Timing, six of which I saw performed in the early 1990s (of these, I’m most fond of the absurd minimalism of Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread). But charming as these plays are, there’s remote, intellectual quality that limits most of them.
And then, in the last couple of years, Ives has turned out a series of works that, to me anyway, should result in a significant upward reassessment of his importance and seriousness. I haven’t seen his adaptation of Corneille’s comedy, The Liar, but I was absolutely floored by Classic Stage’s production last year of his play, Venus in Fur. And his most recent play, School for Lies, an adaptation of Moliere’s masterpiece, The Misanthrope, now running at CSC, floored me yet again – this time with laughter.
Ives’ achievement in this adaptation – really, a transformation, a rethinking from the ground up – is manifold, but I want to highlight two areas in particular.
On the level of language, Ives has managed the incredible feat of writing a verse play in a successfully contemporary idiom. Last year, I saw the revival production of La Bete that starred Mark Rylance, another effervescent contemporary verse comedy plainly indebted to Moliere. The comparison between the two plays is instructive, because La Bete, in spite of having been written in modern times, seemed to be aiming for the effect of an “updating” of a classic piece, in something of the manner that Savoyards regularly update the lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. By contrast, School for Lies, though it is based on Moliere, and is written in verse, feels – and, more important, sounds – contemporary. This isn’t just a matter of Ives’s use of contemporary idiom (best example: when his Celimene mimics one socialite’s airheaded inanity, climaxing with a line consisting entirely of repetitions of the word “like”). I think it’s also the profusion of internal rhymes and alliterations, more reminiscent both of Sondheim and of rap than of Moliere (or, more properly, Richard Wilbur’s Moliere).
Then: on the level of story. Let’s be frank: Moliere’s play is a bit thin in story terms. It’s a character study more than anything. Alceste, the hero, is often compared to Hamlet, and the thing they most have in common is that, in spite of objectively being exceptionally annoying people, they nonetheless seem to charm everyone they meet. (Young Fortinbras, entering a the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, is even charmed by Hamlet’s corpse, announcing that, though he never met him living, he can just tell that Hamlet would have been a great king.) Hamlet, though, charms everyone in the audience as well. Alceste, at least in the English-speaking world, has had a harder time of that. Which is an interesting problem to have, for an actor or director, but with essentially nothing to distract from this dilemma – how to charm the audience, as Alceste appears to have charmed Celimene, by being charmless – any production of The Misanthrope is taking a rather huge risk.
Ives solves this problem very neatly. First, he gives Philante, and his (initially unrequited) love for Eliante, the fully-developed sub-plot he deserves, and doesn’t get from Moliere. Philante goes from being a not-very-interesting planetoid orbiting the star (Alceste) to a complex character in his own right, smooth and capable in society generally but utterly inept at pursuing his own love interest. And yet this Philante, unexpectedly even to him, takes the key action that resolves the external crisis of the drama (a lawsuit going badly), winning the girl (also entirely unexpectedly) in the bargain, and fully earning (with his bride-to-be) the final lines in the play that, in Moliere’s version, have the air of anti-climax. And for good measure, Philante’s outrageous impersonation of royalty is also the most elaborate and effective Moliere-themed joke of the night, as it comprehensively spoofs the (always unsatisfying) resolution of the otherwise incomparable Tartuffe.
Second, he substantially changes the romantic situation between the male and female leads. At the opening of Moliere’s play, Alceste is already smitten with Celimene, and Celimene already returns his affections, albeit she is too coy or coquettish to avow them openly. The plot, in turn, revolves around Alceste’s jealousy, and ultimately traps Celimene in the web of her own socially-appropriate lies. She, repentant, agrees to renounce her other lovers, and marry Alceste – at which point Alceste, unable to take yes for an answer, ups the ante, demanding that she not only marry him but flee civilization with him and become a hermit. When she demurs at this, he can return to denouncing and abusing her, and they exit to resume their endless game of mutually refusing satisfaction.
Ives changes this completely. Alceste, at the opening, is dead; Celimene is his widow. The misanthrope this time is a fellow named (appropriately enough), “Frank,” who has just returned from Britain where he has learned to forget his manners and become a scourge of polite society. (That’s a nice trick in and of itself for an American playwright, an acknowledgement, perhaps, of how our perceptions of the mother isle have changed from the England conjured up by Merchant and Ivory to the England of Simon Cowell and Ricky Gervais.) This fellow Frank, meanwhile, meets Celimene, and is smitten at once. And, of course, expresses his enthusiasm by attacking her ruthlessly for her hypocritical coquettry. So much, so familiar. But Ives provides two reasons for her to show enthusiasm for him in turn: first, she is lied to and told that Frank is a relative of the King, and hence a potentially valuable ally in dealing with her lawsuit; second, he reminds her, somehow, of her dear departed husband. Once thrust together, and in spite of various plot-related obstacles thrown in their way, she cannot, she finds, renounce him, even once she has learned that he is no relation to the King, and so no use to her in court. All this pays off when (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) Frank finally reveals that he is (ha-hah!) Alceste, Celimene’s husband long thought dead at sea but really only lost, now found again, who disguised himself only to test whether the ugly rumors he heard about her easy virtue were true.
All that works very well, is very funny, and is considerably more satisfying than Moliere’s situation, which leaves us always with a nagging puzzle of what on earth Celimene sees in this guy. But the loss of that puzzle is a profound one, I’m afraid, because it’s the heart of Moliere’s play. Moliere’s Alceste and Celimene are a classic fighting couple, kin, I would argue, to Beatrice and Benedict of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, or to Elyot and Amanda of Coward’s Private Lives. They are never so happy as when they are making each other miserable – and the best evidence of this is the ending, where Celimene finally offers Alceste happiness, and he refuses it in favor of another round of frustrated pursuit. There’s an exceptional purity in this choice by Moliere; he recognizes that these two, though they can never be free of each other, equally can never freely choose each other without losing themselves, something they are simply unwilling to do. That’s very interesting – perhaps more interesting than it is dramatic. In any event, that’s what Ives sacrifices for the sake of dramatic closure. His Alceste, like Cary Grant in “The Philadelphia Story,” or like Cary Elwes in “The Princess Bride,” held a superior position from the first, and was only waiting to see if his once and future bride would make the right choice. Which is a perfectly good way to go – those are both great movies, and this is a supremely effective play. But it is less distinctive as a destination than Moliere’s, in part because it is a destination, something Moliere denies us.
A few words about this production. I wouldn’t change a thing. The set is gorgeously understated – the walls and floor upholstered in off-white like a luxurious padded cell, the only furnishing a single rustic wooden desk. The costumes are exquisitely individuated, and evoke the idea of “period” without either really being of it or descending into parody; they seem like the sorts of things these characters would wear, most like plausible clothes for those most like plausible people, most like theatrical caricatures for those (like Celimene’s three hapless suitors) who are themselves caricatured.
And the acting is magnificent from start to finish. I thought at first that Hamish Linklater was going to walk away with the show, he was so vibrant and fluid when he first appeared onstage. But one by one the other actors asserted themselves to hilarious effect. I want to particularly single out Hoon Lee and Jenn Gambateste as the second pair of lovers, Philante and Eliante, who start out seeming like stock supporting players then blossom, then very nearly explode and take over the play, and Matthew Mahar as Acaste, one of Celimene’s suitors, who Ives draws as the most amiable of dunces and who, whether in spite of or because he is playing someone so dim, has the most natural way with Ives’s verse of anyone on stage but Linklater. And Mamie Gummer positively glows. But really, everyone does an absolutely marvelous job, and they look like they’re having a blast doing it.
And so will you, seeing it.