Review: “Puff: Believe It Or Not”

Kelsey Brennan, Netta Walker, and Christopher Sheard in a scene from “Puff: Believe It Or Not” now playing at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., through Jan. 7, 2018. – Nathanael Filbert

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Jan. 7, 2018
Tickets: $42.50-$52.50
Phone: 773-404-7336

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

According to his program note, Artistic Director Nick Sandys “stumbled across” Ranjit Bolt’s 2004 translation of Eugène Scribe’s “Puff: Believe It Or Not” (originally “Le Puff—ou Mensonge et Verité”) about a decade ago, but it didn’t seem relevant enough for Remy Bumppo Theatre Company to stage the world premiere—until now.

It’s easy to see why. Scribe’s story about a truth-averse society in love with mendacity, market manipulation, fame, fortune, “puffery” (exaggeration), and publicity couldn’t be more timely in this era of fake news, boldface lies, and other forms of perfidy and hypocrisy.

But the company’s hesitation also makes sense. Immensely popular in his own time, the prolific French playwright (1791-1861) you may never have heard of was no Molière, and “Puff,” written in 1848, weakly echoes “The Misanthrope” or, say, the comedies of Oscar Wilde, without the originality or satiric bite.

The play has a certain “paint by numbers” quality, which is no surprise. Scribe churned out more than 400 theater pieces (including lots of opera libretti) and basically ran a writing “factory” with one collaborator contributing the plot, another the dialogue, and so forth. He’s also credited with devising the “well-made play,” and “Puff” is a prime example. It’s tightly plotted with many convoluted twists and turns and a late revelation that makes everything come out alright in the end.

The plot hinges on almost everyone pretending to be something they are not. The main exception is our hero Albert d’Angremont (Joshua Moaney, tall and straight), an upright and honest soldier who’s come to Paris after five years in Algeria to make sure his commanding officer’s widow gets the pension she deserves. Appalled by the duplicity and deception he encounters all around him, he’s determined to uphold his standards but soon learns that his truthfulness can have the opposite effect from what he intended and hurt those he cares about most.

Besides the widow, Albert’s main concern is Antonia de la Roche-Bernard (lovely Netta Walker), the young woman he fell in love with and accidently finds again at the home of her guardian César Desgaudets (David Darlow), an older man he rescued that morning from being run over. Known all over town as a miser, César lives in a rundown mansion with Antonia and his daughter, Corrine Desgaudets (Kelsey Brennan), a self-styled ‘Tenth Muse” whose literary columns and salons are sought after, but who wants to marry for riches and a title.

The object of Corrine’s attentions is the foppish Comte de Marignan (Christopher Sheard), who hopes his two volumes of “history” will win him membership in the Académie française. But Antonia’s brother, Maxence de la Roche-Bernard (Gregory Geffrard), has other plans. A high-living gambler who sells options and feigns being flush when he’s actually broke, he wants to marry his sister off to the Comte to save himself from scandal, especially when he appropriates her inheritance to cover his losses. Naturally Albert wants to stop the marriage—but without sacrificing his principles.

César becomes Albert’s guide through the quagmire, but he’s more than a little cynical and has a secret he initially divulges only to his daughter. Rather than being a miser, he was impoverished by settling his dead brother’s debts. However, he’s remained influential because everyone believes he’s a rich skinflint and offers him perks and deals from which he benefits. When his approach prevails, even Albert has to bend a little, albeit reluctantly.

Perhaps aware that much of the dialogue fails to sparkle despite Bolt’s lively, anachronism-filled translation, Sandys directs with a heavy hand, and many of the performances go over the top with a lot of screaming and little subtly. Darlow’s dry, droll César happily doesn’t, and it’s a pleasure to watch his canny understatement. Peter A. Davis also is comparatively restrained as bookseller and publisher Napoléon Bouvard, a model of avarice and misrepresentation.

From the contemporary music, some of Rachel Lambert’s costumes (especially Corrine’s outlandish second-act ensemble), and even the details of Joe Schermoly’s fairly spare scenic design, I suspect Sandys was trying to achieve a mash-up effect akin to David Ives’ “The School for Lies,” but I just found the incongruities jarring. “Puff: Believe It Or Not” is engaging, but the production would be funnier if it were less forced.