By Diana SaengerPlaywright David Ives’ “The School for Lies,” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT), is a hilarious romp from start to finish. A terrific cast superbly handles the roles of lawyer, butler, femme fatales and their suitors, and other assorted misfits.
A spin on Molière’s 1666 comedy of manners, “The Misanthrope,” “School for Lies” begins immediately to satirize the hypocrisies of the French aristocracy. When arrogant attorney Frank (Richard Baird) enters the scene, he’s quickly surrounded by a host of eccentrics. Two beautiful girls, Eliante (Brenda Dodge) and Celimene (Jessica John), each have their own agenda for finding the right man, but have histories to get through before that will happen.
Frank storms around like a bull issuing snarky insults and accusations, which are spoken in rhymed couplets, to those in the room. Each sentence brings a laugh from the audience as some are cleverly funny and others so amiss they, too, are comical.
The play’s entire dialogue is uttered in this manner.
Celimene is interested in Frank because he’s a lawyer and she needs counsel since she soon has to face a judge. While she flirts about enticing vibes from more than one in the room, she is mourning for her husband, whom she states is the only one she will ever love.
Quite interesting is Philinte (Joel Ripka), who will massage any of the sharpness from those in the room to establish a line between deception and diplomacy, yet he’s also a great liar. Ripka is quick and efficient portraying Philinte’s earnestness to capture Eliante’s heart.
Eliante is somewhat taken by Philinte, but there’s something about him that does not fit her idea of the right man. But as conversations continue, and players become more obvious, she decides she wants attorney Frank. Dodge is terrific as the bubbly easy-going Eliante, until she pounces on Frank with some reserved physical antics that Frank almost cannot refuse.
A more self-righteous snobbishness surfaces in the character of Oronte (Phil Johnson) seems born to play this role. In his mind, he can do no wrong and is quick to readdress all the others. He also makes them suffer as he reads his own sonnets that make little sense. Johnson makes sure the others know Orante is a man of the court and should be highly respected. He also hopes to win the hand of Celimene.
Jason Heil takes on the role of Acaste, a kind of loveable goofball, who adds his own hilarity to the plot.
David Bean steals much of the show as Clitander. He’s not liked by many and lets their accusations slide off his shoulder like a silk scarf. He knows what he wants and is relentless in getting it. Bean knows how to work the audience for laughs with his gestures and expressions that are priceless.
Returning to the stage is a NCRT favorite, Jonathan McMurtry. He needs few words in his role as the butler, as his gestures for an ongoing joke get funnier every time he’s on stage.
Baird steals this show with a tour-de- force performance. He’s appeared in many of NCRT’s productions and always delivers. Here, is at an all-time best. He enters the stage with a Russell Crowe-like demeanor in the way he commands the character. Yet in later scenes, he becomes more like Clark Gable when the two ladies work on him for attention. Dana Hooley brings huge laughs when she appears late in the play and does all she can as Arsinoé to seduce Frank away from the two women clawing over him.
Whether one understands the politics or conventions of this classic, no one will leave it without fond memories and appreciation of this cast and crew’s work.
■ IF YOU GO:“The School for Lies” runs through March 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Tickets start at $37. (858) 481-1055.