Whenever hard-working theater people just want to play, the famously permissive CSC is sure to indulge them. “The School for Lies,” David Ives’ clever meta-spoof of Moliere’s “Misanthrope” (rhyming couplets! anachronistic language! bawdy jokes!) is the kind of playground game that observes its own rules while rewarding players for spontaneous sport. The talents of a bright ensemble and fun-loving tech team flourish under Walter Bobbie’s sharp direction; and if the verbal witticisms of Ives’ satire ultimately feel strained and overly precious — well, this game was always more for the exclusive amusement of the court.
The elaborate artifice of the play is gorgeously articulated in the language of the production design. The simplicity of John Lee Beatty’s white-on-white drawing room set and the elegance of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design are the tasteful background for the outrageous behavior of this 17th-century social set — behavior the characters quite literally wear on their satin and velvet sleeves, in William Ivey Long’s rich and sumptuous period costumes.
Hamish Linklater, the quick-witted young thesp who catches all eyes whenever he does Shakespeare, is ever-so smartly cast as Frank, the cranky social critic who stands here for Moliere’s misanthropic Alceste.
The bright and shiny Mamie Gummer (not lost to the boards, it seems, despite her starring role in ABC’s “Off the Map”) is also pretty irresistible as that arch coquette, Celimene. She’s also irresistibly pretty as coiffed by Paul Huntley and poured into a stunning champagne gown.
Hoon Lee (“Yellow Face”) makes a self-assured spokesman for the mannered production style as the chatty Philinte, who earns the first big laugh by delivering the scribe’s tongue-in-cheek declaration that the world has reformed itself since Moliere’s day. With all the buffoons, dunces, and hypocrites banished from society, “What use for satire, now our lives are placid / And all our ills are solved by techno-fix?”
The three buffoons and dunces played by Rock Holmes, Matthew Maher, and Frank Harts (all costumed to garish perfection) quickly appear to give the lie to this disingenuous claim. As for those hypocrites, Alison Fraser plays the mother of them all in her viciously funny portrayal of the treacherous Arsinoe, whose knockdown with Celimene is studded with “such terms as tart, whore, floozy, trollop, slut,” as well as “prostitute, strumpet, baggage, hussy, slattern” and the odd “fornicatrix” and “lesbian.”
As far as it goes, Ives’ mashup of period vocabulary and contemporary slang works well in conflating two historical periods, the 17th and 21st centuries, that prize blatant stupidity, buffoonery, and hypocrisy. And whenever rhyme and reason coincide — as is the case with Arsinoe’s lines: “Don’t think I’m gossiping. I’m not the sort. / I never gossip, dear. I just report” — the effect is delicious.
But it goes too far, this egg-beater poetics; and if the anachronistic terminology (“dude”? “flip-flops”?) weren’t delivered in rhymed couplets, much of it wouldn’t seem the least bit funny.