As advertised, Constellation’s new production of The School for Lies (★★★☆☆), staged by founding artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman, is indeed a riotous, giddy affair. The comedy of manners by David Ives, inspired by Molière’s The Misanthrope, stirs a frothy mix of farce, innuendo, and social satire that entangles posh widow Célimène (Natalie Cutcher) and her catty circle in a war of words, where no one is safe from the daggers of ridicule or slander.
Célimène and her society friends entertain themselves gossiping about, and pricking the pompous airs of, frenemies and acquaintances. There seem to be no true friends, or few, who gather in the widow’s ornate, coral-painted drawing room to either court her, or threaten to take her to court for publicly impugning their character or reputation.
Perhaps the most offensive — and definitely most inclined to offend — of the guests in her salon is Frank (Drew Kopas), a blunt Brit who wields a lethal tongue. “He’s turned his testiness into an art,” remarks Philinte (Dylan Arredondo), the dashing dandy in a bejeweled, flamingo-pink suit who first ushers misanthrope Frank into Célimène’s bullring for the bourgeoisie.
Luckily for us, Arredondo’s charming Philinte, appearing solo at the top to sum up the setting, also ushers the audience into the bouncy meter and wordplay of Ives’ script.
Arredondo finds a winking style for delivering the rhyming verse, matched by a boldly sassy demeanor that instantly sets the show’s mannered tone. Cutcher likewise excels in her interpretation, lending Célimène an insouciant confidence that must surely be bolstered by the hostess’s stunning ice-blue corseted gown by costume designer Frank Labovitz.
The costumes on the entire cast are a jewel-toned delight, vessels of humor and taste that speak on their own for each character, and as a collection that, like the play, revels in the smartness of this set, and lampoons it at the same time. The satin-caped pantsuit on Célimène’s nemesis Arsinoë (Gwen Grastorf) makes a perfect wicked witch reference, even before the show does so more explicitly.
Grastorf, plying an arch snideness as slanderous Arsinoë, proves an excellent comic foil for Cutcher’s icier Célimène, while Ryan Sellers appears almost effortless selling the rhyme and the oddball rhythms of his hilariously vapid marquis Ocaste. And Matthew Pauli, in dual roles, consistently nails the target with amusing background (and occasionally foreground) bits of business as Célimène’s quietly suffering servant Dubois.
Others in the cast fare less successfully at sustaining the script’s jaunty turns of phrase and timing. However, when called for, the whole ensemble ably turns up the volume for the broad comic flourishes entailed by Ives’ stinging farce. It’s even funnier, then, that perhaps the night’s biggest laugh derives from a small gesture that, at any prior moment in the play, might have resolved the plot, lickety-split.
The absurdity of the moment is the joke, and it goes over like gangbusters because Stockman and company adeptly set us up for the silliness with every insult, pratfall, well-timed sound cue, and thread of sumptuous costuming.
That the story at last twists back around, past the hype and hypocrisy, to strike a touching note of sincerity, is less expected yet just as adeptly handled.
The School for Lies runs through May 28 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, with a Zillennial Night on May 11, Black Out Night performance on May 13, and Pride Night performance on May 20. Tickets are $20 to $55. Call 202-204-7741, or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.
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