Shortly after winning the Tony Award for his performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the actor Larry Blyden was asked the difference between comedy and farce. In comedy, he replied, you must tell the truth all the time, whereas in farce you must lie. What he meant was that farce is bigger than life, and while you have to be consistent in creating the world of the play, farce requires a different kind of energy than you’d expect in a nuts-and-bolts comedy.
Pierre Marivaux’s The False Servant has all the hallmarks of farce: mistaken identities, undercover liaisons, a woman dressed as a man, an unfeeling rake due for a comeuppance, eager but not-too-bright servants, and a preposterous plot which somehow manages to get us to a tidy resolution.
The Chevalier (Chastity Dotson) is a dashing young man who’s actually a devious young Parisian woman in male drag. The reason? She is engaged to Lelio (Christian Leffler), a fortune hunter she’s never met, and she ventures, in disguise, to a village outside Paris to become Lelio’s friend and find out about him before they wed. She discovers he’s also promised to marry The Countess (Dorie Barton) who has loaned him a great deal of money. Lelio confides to his new friend that the Countess does not have as much money as his other fiancé in Paris, but there’s an agreement that if he doesn’t marry her he’ll have to repay her loan – so wouldn’t it be nice if The Chevalier could seduce the Countess, so that the Countess would break off the engagement herself and thus spare Lelio the chore of having to pay back all that money?
Since this takes place a few centuries ago, there are, of course, servants fumbling about, drinking, scheming, making fun of their masters, and trying to better their stations. Frontin (Cody Chappel), Trivelin (Barry Del Sherman), and Arlequin (Mathew Bazulka) are the downstairs denizens here.
There’s a lot to like in The False Servant, in this new version by Martin Crimp, directed by Bart DeLorenzo. The imposing set, by Frederica Nascimento, is a massive staircase, with irregularly shaped steps providing multiple levels upon which the characters stand, sit, crouch, or slouch. It’s abstract yet solid, neutral in tone so as to absorb whatever color the supple lighting by Michael Gend lends it, and provides a simple yet excitingly complex playing ground. The costumes by Leah Piehl include possibly the single ugliest costume I’ve ever seen (Ms Barton almost rises above it), but the rest are more than serviceable and in some cases quite witty. And the sound by John Ballinger works well, though the choice of having the songs sung to prerecorded tracks forces on them a mechanical quality.
The acting by the two women is excellent. The always-reliable and resourceful Ms Barton makes the most of the Countess’s double entendres, while Ms Dotson, after a shaky start, turns her pants role into a genuinely convincing piece of deception. With her pencil moustache, pompadour, tuxedo-like outfit, and macho posturing, there were moments when she called to mind a young Sammy Davis, Jr., and her increasing bravado as the play went on only heightened the impression.
While the men were all undoubtedly talented, only Mr. Bazulka displayed the ongoing (and outgoing) energy we should expect from these kinds of roles. He threw himself into his scenes, sometimes going so far as to become borderline incomprehensible, but at least there was verve and commitment.
And this is my main criticism: that too much of the play was, in lieu of a better term, played in a laissez faire style. The long – very long – setup of the plot was laid out by the characters with the low-key feeling of a couple of guys sittin’ on the porch, chewin’ the fat about this’n’that. There was no sense of urgency, no intimation of a ticking clock, no feeling of impending danger – all of which are critical. More importantly, the lassitude, the casualness in which that scene and others were played, made it difficult to follow the convoluted plot. The synopsis I offered above came from reading about the play afterward – while actually watching it, I was at sea much of the time. Part of this was the fault of the translation, which wasn’t always easy to follow, and which occasionally lapsed into unfortunate and unnecessary vulgarity. But when characters don’t make a determined effort to propel the story, it’s easy to become as blasé as they are, and just not care much.
To be sure, not everyone felt the same way. My companion thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and many of the other theatregoers seemed to have a great time. So maybe it’s just me.
But I sure wanted to like it more than I did.
The False Servant
Written by Pierre Marivaux, in a new version by Martin Crimp
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo
Through September 6
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: 310-477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com