Theatre patrons gushed about the La Jolla Playhouse’s 2005 production of Moliere’s “The Miser” staged by the Minneapolis-based ensemble Theatre de la Jeune Lune. That company has returned with an adaptation of “La Fausse Suivante” by 18th-century French playwright Pierre Marivaux, renamed “The Deception” by its adapters Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand.
Although director Dominique Serrand, artistic director/co-founder of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, told audience members before “The Deception” began not to expect the same elements they saw in “The Miser,” the departure of many of the audience members during the intermission said a lot about the play, which according to their personal tastes, some seemed to love, others were voiceably disappointed.
The minimalist set consists of four large glass-paned walls with smudges of different paint colors swirled on them. There are a few hidden doors and one wall slides back and forth. Other than this, there are no props of any kind. The story about a young heiress who disguises herself as a man to learn the true motivations of a man pursuing her is heavy on dialogue, running and shouting and, for me, short on character attachment.
Playhouse Associate Artistic Director, Shirley Fishman, explained about the play, “Marivaux’s style is so distinctive that his contemporaries coined a new term to describe it as, ‘Marivaudage, - sharp, scintillating dialogue that clearly exposes the selfish side of love.’”
The play begins with an angry and immoral Trivelin (J.C. Cutler), who is about to take a job as a servant to the Countess (Emily Gunyou Halaas). He spares no words, including many of vulgar origin, to let the audience know he has no redeeming qualities and will lie, cheat and steal to get what he wants.
The next unsavory character is Lelio (Casey Greig), another villainous guy who is betrothed to the countess, but only as he reveals to Trivelin, to get her money and then divorce her. Lelio befriends Chevalier (Merritt Janson), who shows up at the chateau as a friend to both the countess and Leilo. A woman, disguised as a man, Lelio is also pursuing her as her fortune is far more than that of the countess, and she’s decided to check everything out for herself.
The other clueless character in this story is the other servant Arlequino (Nathan Keepers), who is supposed to be a buffoon enamored by two things, money and sex. At first Nathan’s portrayal is fine, he does really stupid things and we laugh, but as the play goes on, the things become lame and the laughs lessen. One example is when he stands shaking his head vigorously from side to side for no reason and then says, “I can’t see; my hair’s in the way.” This dialogue and many of his actions jump the time era like “Three Stooges” routines.
Emily Gunyou Halaas may be a fine actress, but she gets no room to show it in “The Deception.” Her entire role is running barefoot back and forth on the stage dressed in something Bjork might wear and spouting lines that have no significance.
The only truly interesting role is that of Chevalier, and Merritt Janson plays it well. However, without characters to care about and who are so dimwitted they reveal their inner- most secrets to a buffoon, with a set that feels cold and empty, and the endless use of vulgarity, I wish I could have left at intermission with those other theatre patrons.
“The Deception” is playing through August 19 in the Potiker Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse located on U.C. San Diego’s campus. For more information or tickets call (858) 550-1010.