Sometimes the low road is best.
The folks at Lantern Theater have turned their attention to 16th-century master playwright Pierre Corneille, whose verse tragedies (especially the epic Le Cid) are monuments of the classical French repertoire. But Lantern has chosen one of his comedies, in a freewheeling adaptation by American David Ives. From the opening moment of Le Menteur (literally translated here as The Liar), as doleful servant Cliton (brilliantly played by Dave Johnson) admonishes, in a perfect couplet, a lady in the audience to stop eating her bean burrito, you know the evening will be anything but highfalutin.
I suppose there are a few overserious blowhards who will sneer at Ives’ version, which retains Corneille’s plot and period setting, emphasizes comic ribaldry and tonally is sometimes about as Corneille as Kansas in August (sorry). But for most of us, The Liar — executed at Lantern with maximum joie de vivre — is an evening of joyful bliss.
The play’s plot can’t exactly be summarized. (1. I still can’t figure it all out; 2. It doesn’t matter; and 3. It’s better as a delightful surprise.) I’ll just say that Dorante is a swashbuckling ladies’ man who simply can’t tell the truth. About anything. Courting two beautiful Parisian women — Clarice and Lucrece — he confuses the two and manages to embroil himself in a series of impossible situations. (All of this under the disapproving-yet-admiring eye of Cliton, the aforementioned servant.) Also in on the spectacle are Geronte, Dorante’s dullard father; Alcippe, a dashingly fatuous rival for the ladies; and not one, but two saucy maids — twins.
So there are good comic bones, but the reason it all works so well here starts with Ives’ adaptation. The playwright has the extraordinary ability to be both uptown and downtown. He quotes Shakespeare, then seconds later is firmly immersed in contemporary colloquialisms. He can pun in Franglais (“Champs-Élysées, my friend, lies that-a-way/ Unless the Louvre has mouvred since yesterday”). And, best of all, he manages to make almost everything sound risqué — wait till you hear Dorante mention the Pont Neuf; of course, it’s a bridge spanning the Seine, but in the mouth of actor Aubie Merrylees, it sounds exceedingly raunchy.
Which leads us to the other winning element here: the acting. Some of Lantern’s biggest past successes have involved putting comic actors into classic plays, and The Liar is a triumph in that mold. Start with Merrylees — the young actor has given fine performances before, but here is a breakout star. He has absolutely everything going for him — a sweetly funny face that looks simultaneously scheming and bemused, great physical dexterity and a funky vocal delivery that manages to sneer at almost everything while remaining utterly lovable. Dave Johnson has the perfect hangdog manner for the beleaguered Cliton and Jake Blouch as Alcippe manages to be silly and dashing at the same time. The women’s roles aren’t as richly written, but Emily Rogge is a snarky delight as both maids and Sarah Gliko and Emilie Krause do well with Clarice and Lucrece, and all this comes together under Kathryn MacMillan’s skillful direction.
Two small caveats: Funny as the show is, two-and-a-half hours is long, and I wish the physical production had a bit more of the comic verve we see in the acting. (I had hoped something zany and magical would happen with the imposing chateau at the rear of the set, but it provides only a handsome backdrop.)
But these are minor quibbles. The Liar is an absolutely delightful evening. The low road, maybe — a good time, absolutely.
Through Dec. 2, $30-$38, St. Stephen’s Theater, 19 S. 10th St., 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.