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Playwright David Ives has done quite well with original works, including Venus in Furs and All in the Timing. Lately, however, he’s been penning modern translations and adaptations of classic French comedies, such as The Heir Apparent, premiered locally at Lantern Theater Company.
Jean-Francois Regnard's 1708 play, dusted off (though not cleaned up) by Ives in 2011, presents a faded, threadbare Paris home (colorfully realized by Lance Kniskern with audience on three sides) and its morally bankrupt inhabitants. They circle like vultures, waiting for aged Geronte (Leonard C. Haas) to croak so they can divvy up his fortune.
If this sounds a bit like Molière's The Miser, imagine that 1668 comedy with fart, erection, and enema jokes in the first minute and no redeeming qualities — that's The Heir Apparent.
Not that there's anything wrong with that
A comedy without moral bearings can be lots of fun, of course, especially with an inventive director like M. Craig Getting and a talented cast. Servants Crispin (Dave Johnson, whose antics serve the play for a change) and Lisette (Lee Minora) suffer indignities from Geronte (many mentions of diarrhea).
The pair helps Eraste (Chris Anthony) wrangle a share of Geronte's money in the hopes of some trickle-down wealth.
Eraste wants to marry Isabelle (Ruby Wolf), whose haughty mother Madame Argante (Mary Martello) appears willing to wed Geronte — but the old goat wants Isabelle.
Much silliness results from several characters impersonating distant relatives who stand to inherit from Geronte’s will — which, everyone discovers, doesn't exist. Can a dead man sign a will? More impersonations ensue.
Ives has Crispin step from the play once to ask if we understand the plot. Fortunately, he doesn't inquire about whether or not we care.
The slapstick intensity of Getting's production, the manic effort to wring every chuckle possible from this tired material, wears thin. True, greed is timeless and heartless skinflints deserve a comeuppance, but The Heir Apparent plays in one relentless gear that's impossible to sustain for over two hours.
A contemporary nod
The rhyming couplets the French love so much are made simple by Ives, delivered in an unavoidable singsong rhythm that soon becomes tedious. He peppers his plain verse with modern references: "You've got a Cadillac to smooth your ride," for example, and references to Godzilla, Tonto, and national health insurance, which received a healthy roar. Even socialism, as an alternative to "money's evil chains," gets a mention.
Sound designer Christopher Colucci surrounds the action with modern tunes, particularly several versions of the old Beatles hit "Money (That's What I Want)" and Pink Floyd's "Money." Marla Jurglanis's period costumes are painstakingly clever, including three identical dresses for imposters of one relative and a silly costume for the lawyer Scrupe (Adam Hammet), who's meant to appear very short — inspiring lots of, you guessed it, short jokes (consider this a warning).
My favorite bit aspires to a little more: a few brief scenes in which Crispin and Lisette suddenly remember they're French. Amanda Jenson provides moody lighting as they pose with cigarettes, don ridiculous accents, and mock old French films.
After 310 years, one might hope a resurrected play — even a light comedy — might offer more than fart and diarrhea jokes. Anyone wanting more David Ives after the Lantern's powerful New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 in 2011 and 2012 risks intestinal distress seeing The Heir Apparent.
What, When, Where
The Heir Apparent. By David Ives, M. Craig Getting directed. Through December 16, 2018, at the Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
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