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|A CurtainUp Review
The Rehearsal is one of the French dramatist Jean Anouilh's most critically acclaimed and popular plays. Like much of his work, it explores the conflict between idealism and reality by setting a poor young innocent adrift in a sea of human sharks. To bring the play's light exterior as a comedy of manners into balance with the underlying darkness of jealousy and false pride triumphing over emotional honesty, there's a cleverly interjected play-within-a-play to reflect and heighten the impossibility of bridging the gap between the insularity of the idle rich through the centuries.
The setting for The Rehearsal's main action is a circa 1950's French Chateau. The mirror-play being rehearsed as a weekend amusement by the Chateau's owners (the sharks)--a count and his countess, friends and lovers, plus a young teacher, (the poor innocent)--is the eighteenth century Marivaux play Double Inconstancy..
While its dark vision, keeps The Rehearsal from being a mere amusement, like a Noel Coward play, its endurance owes no small measure to the fact that Anouilh, like Coward, believed that a playwright's purpose is to amuse. More importantly, while the "sharks" may end up making a meal of the young idealist, they don't do so without indigestion. The bitterness of their triumph softens Anouilh's seemingly relentless disillusionment and strengthens the emotional connection with the audience.
As with any thirty-year-old play, the question inevitably arises as to whether what interested and moved audiences then still has staying power today. In the case of The Rehearsal, everything points to a resounding "yes." For one thing there's the public interest in things decadent-French-aristocrat as indicated by the continued best video renter success on Dangerous Liaison, (based on Christopher Hampton's play Les Liaisons Dangereuses), and the advent of the new movie Ridicule with its cast of barb-witted French aristocrats. More importantly there's the enduring challenge to actors and directors to balance the play's light and the dark elements which if met with some measure of accomplishment insures success for any revival.
Given the Roundabout's knack for using star power to raise a revival's voltage, their newest offering of The Rehearsal raised great expectations. Its seven-member cast, (not counting three silent valets) is headed by Roger Rees as the slyly named Hero and David Threlfall as the Count-- (memorable for their previous Broadway team work as Nicholas Nickleby and Smike)-- and directed by Nicholas Martin who came to the task with a fine resume.
Unable to attend the opening but on the theory that "good things keep" we set aside the evening before Thanksgiving, a full week into the play's run. By this time other critics posted their opinions which, to our surprise and dismay, were less than ecstatic. And so, chanting the independent theater goers' mantra, "the critics be damned" to keep us open-minded we arrived at the Roundabout's Stage Two.
In all fairness, the two hours and fifteen minutes were regularly interspersed with enjoyable moments. The scene of Hero's relentless destruction and seduction of Lucile is unforgettable. Roger Rees not only seizes hold of all of the play's darkest elements, but manages to fire up the new to Broadway Anna Gunn, so that the audience experiences the full momentum of the collision between pure love and pure malice. Frances Conroy and David Threlfall also have scenes that proved they were not totally miscast. Kathryn Meisle, unlike her colleagues, is a uniformly excellent Hortensia. Her looks and facial expression reminded us somewhat of a young Diana Riggs and while she doesn't have the play's best lines, what she says is crystal clear. There's also a wonderful moment just before the intermission, (the end of Act 2 in the days when we still had four acts instead of breaking all those acts into convenient parts), when the whole cast faces the audience. As they transform the Marivoux actors' bows into "real" bows to the real audience, we get a sense of what the Count means about the theater anticipating and improving on life.
Taken as a whole, however, the evening's strengths do not offset its weaknesses. Frances Conroy's visible inner turmoil when the Count forces her to humiliate herself before Lucile, only underscore the overly cool and strident persona projected elsewhere. David Threlfall's Count is amusing but lacks the three-dimensional brilliance he brought to the part of Leslie Titmus in the Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Paradise Postponed. The above-mentioned scene with Roger Rees, notwithstanding, Anna Gunn's debut as Lucile makes one yearn for the ethereal quality brought by Julie Harris to Anouilh's most famous innocent-among-sharks, Joan of Arc, (The Lark). The less said about Frederick Weller's Villebosse, the better.
After seeing Michael Krass's wonderfully appropriate costumes in The Royal Family and Full Gallop, his passion for all shades of lamé seems a bit much here--especially in context of the very un-opulent Chateau setting. The antique wash applied to the grey walls somehow looks just washed out. The pickled floors seem to cry out for a carpet and at least one settee. Getting back to the positive, there's enough witty banter to keep the evening afloat:
When Damien, a lawer and Lucile's would-be protector agrees to participate in the amateur theatrical, stating that he's always had a tidy amateur talent, the Countess' wry "A lawyer never stops acting, we all know that" resonates with audiences living in a world filled with Court TV dramatics. Her unwillingness to accept the Count's dalliance outside her circle and with someone he loves is summed up in her acceptance of his current mistress Hortense: "She's a well-bred girl! But what will people say if my husband loses his head over a flea?"
And of course there's the much quoted advice by the count to his actors:"Life is very nice but it lacks form. It's the aim of art to give it some."
For those of you who go to the show, be sure to look at the interesting little exhibit about Anouilh's world in the lobby. It sheds much light on the insularity of the French aristocracy since the Revolution and points out that the playwright's popularity in Paris was exceeded in 1959 by none other than Marivoux. Nonetheless, it's rather doubtful that American theater goers are ready for a Marivoux revival so it's a good thing that the Roundabout didn't follow in Théàtre de Français de Toronto director Diana Leblanc footsteps. Last year she presented a paired separate production of The Rehearsal and The Double Inconstancy!
For some of Mr. Martin's more enthusiastically received plays, we suggest you re-read our review of Full Gallop Full Gallop review . We've also re-posted our review of his production of The Royal Family in our Berkshire theater column Review of Williamstown Theatre Festival's Royal Family.