NEW YORK—Never tell the truth when a lie can be more fanciful—a philosophy lived to the fullest by Dorante, a dashing young man in 1643 Paris, and the very endearing catalyst for David Ives’s delightful romp “The Liar,” at Classic Stage Company. Ives adapted his work from Pierre Corneille’s comedy “Le Menteur,” which is nearly unknown to English speakers.
Forsaking the legal profession for the life of a soldier, Dorante (Christian Conn) has come to Paris in search of adventure, opportunity, and a wife. He finds what he believes is the perfect mate in the beautiful Clarice (Ismenia Mendes).
Out for a walk with her best friend, Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow), Clarice initially ignores Dorante’s overtures, but soon becomes fascinated as he regales her with untrue tales of his wartime adventures.
The quieter Lucerne is less than impressed and does her best to remove her friend from the dangers of temptation; Clarice happens to have a fiancée, the hot-headed swordsman Alcippe (Tony Roach).
Watching this initial encounter in disbelief is Dorante’s servant, Cliton (Carson Elrod). While Dorante can tell a lie at the drop of a hat, Cliton speaks only the truth. Dorante has hired Cliton to be not only his servant, but also his conscience.
Determined to learn more about Clarice (including her name, which she never mentioned), Dorante directs Cliton to find out everything he can about her.
However, due to a mix up, the men are unable to figure out which of the ladies is Clarice and which is Lucrece. Even Clarice’s maid, Isabelle (Kelly Hutchinson), who begins her own romance with Cliton, is no help in this matter.
Naturally, the wrong assumption is reached, with Dorante finding himself covertly courting Lucrece while putting down Clarice every chance he gets.
The great joy of this show is the way Dorante effortlessly reels off one invented scenario after another. A self-proclaimed “master liar,” he explains how making up a tale out of whole cloth helps to inject a little color into an otherwise drab world.
This premise only holds true as long as the yarns don’t hurt anyone. When that is not the case, a day of reckoning is never far behind—something Dorante learns, to his consternation.
The play, spoken in verse (as was the original Corneille play), is quite enjoyable. Some of the rhymes are stretched (detergent and urgent), and references to modern situations and conveniences (such as Twitter) do take away from the feeling that this is a true classic comedy. Yet the touches of modern dialogue imbue the play with an immediacy that is so often lacking in works such as these.
The story is also helped by Michael Kahn’s strong direction and the characters’ comic antics. These include a sword fight quite unlike any other staged and a scene in which Dorante regales Alcippe about his seduction of a lady, not realizing the lady is Alcippe’s intended. Adding to the hilarity are the efforts of Cliton and Alcippe’s friend Philiste (Aubrey Deeker) to defuse the situation before blood can to be shed.
Conn is wonderful as Dorante, who takes deep pride in the lies he tells. Finally, though, he is forced to decide what he wants out of life and who he wants to spend that life with.
Adam Lefevre offers a nice bit of pathos as Dorante’s father. He’s an aging fellow who just wants his son to marry and present him with a grandchild. This leads Dorante to concoct a story that a grandchild is indeed on his way, as well as invent a wife, a forced marriage, and many wails of anguish.
Elrod nicely projects a perennial put-upon air as Cliton. This hapless fellow initially is just looking for a job, but in the end gains far more. Particularly amusing is a sequence in which Dorante explains the art of lying to his servant, with Cliton desperately and badly trying to mimic his master’s methods.
Mendes and Pedlow are appealing as Clarice and Lucrece.
Present throughout “The Liar” are flashes of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Dorante and Lucrece channel Beatrice and Benedick at times as they show how feelings of love and disdain are quite often separated by only the thinnest of lines—and how one can change to the other rapidly.
Costumes by Murell Horton are very good and help to add to the atmosphere of the story.
The best thing about this production of “The Liar” is that it doesn’t try to be more than it sets out to be: a rollicking good time that will leave you laughing in the end, the beginning, and in-between.
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St.
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or ClassicStage.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Feb. 26
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.