Among male scribes, even a diehard political playwright like Tony Kushner finds the fathers-and-sons trope an irresistible dramatic theme. Or so it seems from “The Illusion,” his 1990 adaptation of Corneille’s 17th-century grab-bag of theatrical forms, which has surfaced as an eccentric component of the Signature Theater’s season-long retrospective of the playwright’s art. The whimsical production helmed by Michael Mayer suggests the fun that Kushner took in dabbling with classical forms — and some of the cast members actually get the allusive style. But your common-man subscriber might be forgiven for finding the whole enterprise a mannered bore.
Corneille constructed his 1636 play, “L’Illusion Comique,” as three plays-within-a-play, and Kushner has been faithful to the formal structure of his complicated design. Mayer’s main contribution has been to clarify the basic story buried under the Baroque trappings. In one smart bit of stagecraft, he even allows two key characters to step outside the stage framework to emphasize the unreality of all this play-acting.
So, forget for a minute that the show takes place in the cave of a French sorcerer known as Alcandre (Lois Smith, looking glam in Susan Hilferty’s elder-chic costumes and having a ball). Disregard the fact that this witch conjures up one illusion after another to show a client what his son has been up to over the past 15 years. And don’t be distracted by all the theatrical conceits in these miniature dramas, which are written in several versions of poetry-speak and feature different sets of stock characters performing in a variety of dramatic styles, from Commedia del Arte to high tragedy.
Underneath this elaborate design is a simple story — a repentant father’s search for the son he cruelly cast off as a boy — that Mayer takes great pain to keep front and center.
Pridamant, the rich lawyer from Avignon that David Margulies (in swell clothes and a magnificent wig by Tom Watson) plays with an abundance of humor and a good deal of heart, is amusingly unqualified to call himself a father when he enters Alcandre’s cave. (On Christine Jones’ fanciful set, this mysterious grotto is adorned with flying chandeliers, a piano that doubles as a coffin, and a huge urn that plays all kinds of tricks.) Although Pridamant is such a terrible father he can’t even remember his son’s name, by the end of the play he’s a heartbroken wreck — and how sweet it that for a son who has suffered so much?
Not so sweet, actually, since Finn Wittrock, the handsome thesp who plays Pridamant’s son in all his illusory guises — a romantic lover, a murderer, even an actor — has a limited number of facial expressions and is stingy about using them. Amanda Quaid, as the lovely, but seemingly inaccessible lady he adores, is only marginally more animated.
Luckily, Merritt Wever, as the lady’s maid in all these overwrought dramas, has a lively wit and spirit to spare. Whether sick with unrequited love or burning for vengeance, this enchanting character livens things up far more than the stock comic characters who surface on cue.
Kushner, being Kushner, has more on his mind than the literary challenges of Baroque dramaturgy. But while his approach to the eternal questions about life vs. art, illusion vs. reality turns out to be as playful as it is serious, it’s just so … French.