Where does the virtue of truth lie and how do we separate hype from substance? These questions float through David Ives’ The Liar, an airy and erudite adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Le Menteur, which just opened at Classic Stage Company. The titular character, whose given name is Dorante (Christian Conn), has turned deception into an art. He arrives in Paris after a tired stint studying law (cue obvious lawyer jokes) and immediately meets an out-of-work servant, Cliton (Carson Elrod), who has the curious affliction of not being able to tell a lie. More reflex than deep moral code, the truth erupts from him in uncomfortable ways, such as feeling compelled to tell Isabelle (Kelly Hutchinson), a fellow servant who’s interested in him, that she’s an eight but not a ten. This amuses the pathological Dorante who immediately employs him.
Ives, who is best known for writing dialogue that sings with rhythm and unbound wit, has kept the structure of the play in verse with the iambic pentameter rhyme scheme fully intact. The words themselves are decidedly modern though giving the audience the giddy feeling of what it must have been like to see the original in 1644. On lying about his military service, Dorante advises Cliton, “You know how ladies love a uniform / Just reel off any military muddle / The dame will deliquesce into a puddle.” He’s the kind of man who never fears the truth holding him accountable, and Conn plays him with bombastic verve. As is want for such a man, he’s also obsessed with having “the best,” so when Isabelle tells Cliton that her lady Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow) is the fairer of two women Dorante is talking to, he assumes incorrectly that she’s the one he’s pining for. The true woman of his desire though is Lucrece’s best friend Clarice (Ismenia Mendes) who’s engaged to a hothead, Alcippe (Tony Roach) who’s prone to duels.
There are many more plot twists in this farce of confusion, propelled by Dorante’s fixation that Clarice is Lucrece. For a man who has built his life around lies and self-delusion, what does true beauty mean and is it enough that everyone else thinks she’s pretty? The humor builds to a riotous second act finale, but in the age of fake news and shallow denigration from the highest office, serious subtext can’t help but be felt. Dorante creates a reality and then lives in it, suffering no real consequence. Sound familiar?
Director Michael Kahn helmed the world premiere at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. back in 2010 before any of these darker themes seemed relevant, and he brings a deft comic touch that’s necessary for farce. The biggest laughs carry a catharsis with them and a lack of retribution seems fitting. The cast works intuitively off each other, grounded by a seemingly effortless tour-de-force performance by Carson Elrod, who recently starred in Peter and the Starcatcher. He steps out of the mania to make frequent wry asides to the audience, assuring us that he’s on our side.
Written by: David Ives
Adapted from a play by: Pierre Corneille
Directed by: Michael Kahn
Starring: Christian Conn, Carson Elrod, Kelly Hutchinson, Amelia Pedlow and Tony Roach
Through: February 26
Christopher Kompanek is a New York-based arts and culture writer. His theater features and reviews have appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Time Out New York, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice.