Review: “The Liar”

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre, Tudor Court Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through July 28
Tickets: $35-$70
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The production of Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar” at Writers’ Theatre contains the funniest scene I’ve seen this season. It’s a duel between Dorante, the ingratiating pathological liar of the title, and Alcippe, the insanely jealous former friend who suspects him of seducing his fiancé. There’s just one catch: When the opponents go to grab their rapiers from referee Philiste, they come up empty handed. The elaborately choreographed fight proceeds anyway, complete with sound effects. To his chagrin, Dorante even accidentally skewers an audience member — and wipes the blood off his imaginary foil. 

Words don’t do the encounter justice, but I laughed so hard, I cried — hardly the reaction I expected to have to a 1643 French comedy I’d barely heard of, much less seen before.

But, then, the assertion that this “Liar” is by Corneille involves something of a lie. The program says it’s “adapted” by David Ives, and the term he uses in his brief essay is “translaptation,” yet as anyone knows who saw “The School for Lies,” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, his take on Moliere’s more familiar “The Misanthrope,” there’s nothing slap-dash about the masterful way he remakes these classics into fresh, new, highly theatrical works. 

According to Ives’ essay, his alterations to “The Liar” included adding the duel, which takes place offstage in the original, and William Brown’s superb direction helps make it a comic gem, as does Nate Burger’s pitch-perfect performance as the dashing, charming and wholly untrustworthy Dorante, who spins so many outrageous tall tales we know he’s bound to get tangled up in them. 

The adapter also admits to tinkering with the plot, trimming long speeches and tweaking the locales, as well as revamping the ending, giving Lucrece (Kalen Harriman) more “personality,” and changing two maids into twins, the flirtatious Isabelle and dominatrix Sabine, both gleefully portrayed by Anne E. Thompson. Like this device, he sprinkles other ideas and lines from Shakespeare here and there, often deliberately drawing attention to them.  

The consummate coup, however, is that he writes in verse, and his iambic pentameter flies fast and furiously, replete with rapier wit, contemporary allusions and brilliant wordplay. We have to pay rapt attention to keep up, while he makes an exacting task seem effortless.

Like the duel, the silly plot turns on a case of mistaken identity and an illusion, and the humor, however incidental it appears at times, cannily illustrates serious observations about human nature that emerge at the end. There’s plenty of social satire, of course, but it tends to be more affectionate than bitter.

The foil for the impulsive Dorante, who’s newly arrived in Paris, is the compulsively honest Cliton (LaShawn Banks), who manages to get himself hired as valet and also acts as narrator/commentator. Complications arise when the silver-tongued young man meets the lively coquette Clarice (Laura Rook), who is engaged to Alcippe (Michael Perez), and her more reserved friend Lucrece (Harriman). The marriage-related machinations of Dorante’s dad, Geronte (Jonathan Weir), contribute to the confusion, while the other adults, Clarice’s uncle (who’s always upstairs) and Lucrece’s father, are happily absent. Alcippe’s friend, Philiste (Samuel Ashdown), takes stabs at being a peacemaker, usually to little avail. He’s also in love with Sabine, at the same time as Cliton favors Isabelle, though of course, they can’t tell for sure which is which. 

The characters owe a debt to commedia del arte, which was popular in France when Corneille was writing, but the acting generally isn’t as broad. The exception is Perez’s enraged, screaming soldier, Alcippe, who arguably goes too far over the top, especially in the first act. 

Other than that, “The Liar” easily makes my top ten shows of the year so far. Oh, and Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes manage to be both sumptuous and a hoot.