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A CurtainUp Review
The False Servant

A posture is not a man.

Jesse Pennington and Martha Plimpton
J. Pennington and M. Plimpton
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)

With this, the final production of CSC's second season under Brian Kulick's helm, I am pleased to report that the semi-new artistic director has finally realized onstage the theatrical formula that ought to be this company's stock-in-trade. CSC's mission is to be "the Off-Broadway theater that re-imagines classics for contemporary American audiences". There are lots of theaters doing this, so implicitly we can assume they mean to add "and to do so well". That's precisely what it has done here.

The False Servant reünites Kulick with Kathleen Tolan, whose play, The Wax, he successfully directed at Playwrights Horizons several seasons ago. This relatively unfamiliar classic of the 18th Century French theater has received a clearly translated, fresh-feeling, accessible production thanks to Tolan, Kulick and a fine cast. It doesn't hurt that it is a very funny, resonant play.

The play is set in motion when a woman (Martha Plimpton), who has spied her husband-to-be, Lelio (Jesse Pennington), with a countess (Tina Benko) on his arm at a masked ball. Disguised as a man, known as Chevalier, she follows him to the countess's estate, where she discovers he is quite a scoundrel. His "love" for the countess is really for the money she has promised him if he marries her -- to which, in Marivaux's questionable plot, he is still entitled if he refuses to marry him. A scheme is concocted in which Chevalier will woo the countess so that she breaks off with Lelio, he still gets the lucre and he can return to Paris and marry his intended -- who also has money, just not quite as much.

Chevalier is also a scoundrel of course; in fact, there's really no one onstage in this play who isn't. This includes a trio of servants (Bill Buell, Paul Lazar and Jerry Matz). The great failing of the upper class here is that they never learned to be discreet around the serving class, so far too many people have a stake in stirring the pot in multiple directions for their own gain. Who is the servant of the title? The answer shifts as the play proceeds, from person to person and ultimately to love and money themselves.

Ms. Plimpton is most impressive and enjoyable here. At times, one wants to sympathize with her character, but it's not allowed. She is believable enough -- this is a play in which suspension of belief is essential anyway. Pennington makes a dashing rogue. I'd like to say they make a lovely couple, but even that is not allowed. Benko is, to a point, a suitably elegant aristocrat. The show-stopper, however, is Mr. Buell (his character's name is Trivelin), who couldn't be better. His classical clowning is not to be missed. (Paul Lazar also has his moments as the putatively put-upon Arlequin, and Jerry Matz is quite fine as both Trevelin's drinking buddy and, later, a valet.)

Mark Wendland has rendered both set and costume duty. There is no set to speak of, except a large functional cart that is loaded literally to the rafters with trunks and other luggage and atop which (for inexplicable reasons) there is an open umbrella. At times, men climb on and off the wagon, and bags are added and subtracted, strewn around the stage, opened, closed, kicked around and at one point occupied by a servant eavesdropping on a conversation. Kevin Adams provides lights and Mark Huang scores the sound.

Let's hope that The False Servant is a harbinger of good things to come from a theater company that has, of late, offered its share of false starts.

The False Servant
by Marivaux, translated by Kathleen Tolan
Directed by Brian Kulick
with Tina Benko, Bill Buell, Paul Lazar, Jerry Matz, Jesse Pennington and Martha Plimpton
Set and Costume Design: Mark Wendland
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Mark Huang
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th ST (3/4 AVS)
Telephone: (212) 677-4210
TUES-SAT @8, SAT @2, SUN @3; $45-50, $15 student rush
Opening April 10, 2005, closing May 8, 2005
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 4/8/05 performance
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