David Ives’s 2010 farce is inspired by The Misanthrope, but to call it an adaptation would be misleading. The School for Lies is very much its own play, one that addresses the good question that Molière left unanswered: How and why did Celimene ever fall in love with that blunt jerk Alceste in the first place?
In Ives’s new spin, the misanthrope’s name is a minor joke of its own: He’s called Frank (Ben Carlson). Newly arrived in Paris and already disgusted by what he deems high society’s preening fakeries, Frank is in tow of milquetoast good-guy Philinte (Sean Fortunato), who’s enamored of Eliante (Heidi Kettenring), the cousin of Celimene (Deborah Hay), a widow who’s renowned for her parodies of friends and associates—a skill that’s gotten her sued under France’s strict libel law. (Her long-lost husband’s name was Alceste; you’ll want to note that for the quiz.)
Ives is a proficient wordsmith, and he has great fun recasting the comic romances and mistaken identities of French farce in very modern English (with a particular flair for creative vulgarities). His rhyming, chiming couplets get the slightest bit tedious by intermission, and Barbara Gaines’s staging leans a little too heavily on indiscriminate wackiness, particularly in Susan E. Mickey’s hyperbolic costumes and the overstated buffoonery of Celimene’s suitors (Kevin Gudahl’s affected lisp is conspicuously over-the-top). But the leads, especially the disarming Hay and delightfully pouty Kettenring, sell the rhymes with verve, and Ives has a few more winning twists to deploy in Act II. This is a twinkling blend of old School and new.